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Video: Brother: Chimp victim’s condition is ‘encouraging’

TODAY contributor
updated 4/7/2009 9:16:08 AM ET 2009-04-07T13:16:08

As the 55-year-old Connecticut woman savagely mauled by a chimpanzee emerges from her medically induced fog in a Cleveland hospital, it has fallen to her family to explain to her how she came to suffer the horrific injuries that she will have to cope with for the rest of her life.

Charla Nash was attacked in Stamford, Conn., on Feb. 16 by a 200-pound chimpanzee belonging to her friend, Sandra Herold. Nash was permanently blinded in the attack, in which she lost her eyelids, much of her face and her fingers.

She has been in the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio since Feb. 19, where doctors have gradually been reducing her medication. Recently, she spoke for the first time with the aid of an artificial voice box and showed an awareness of her surroundings and her injuries.

“The psychiatrist says she understands a lot about her injuries, but she’s not interested at this time to find out how they occurred,” her brother, Steve Nash, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in an exclusive interview from Cleveland, where he has been staying with his sister since she was taken there for treatment.

“We’re positive all the time we’re with her, saying good morning to her and trying to get her to understand the day of the week, the time of the year and where she is, and telling her she’s in the best place in the world to help with her injuries, and that she had an accident and we’re going to take care of her,” he added.

Steve Nash was joined by his brother and Charla’s twin, Mike Nash, who has been staying in Connecticut caring for his sister’s 17-year-old daughter, Brianna.

“My focus is Charla, giving her hope at this time because this is a real critical time for her where she’s going to realize the scope of her injuries,” Mike Nash told Vieira. “She’s got to know that we’re still here for her and there are still a lot of reasons to keep hope there, tell her that that she has a daughter and a future and she needs to be part of it.”

Steve and Mike Nash spoke from Cleveland, where their sister is recovering. She faces years of surgeries.
The first word Charla Nash spoke was the name of one of her nurses, Lisa. Steve Nash said when the nurse told him of the landmark event, “I was very happy, and I gave the nurse a hug. The nurse has always talked to my sister as if she were awake. And I guess it paid off. Lisa got her to say her name. It was very emotional at that time.”

Doctors had feared that Charla Nash suffered neurological damage from being shaken violently by the chimp, but so far tests haven’t shown that to be the case.

“Since Day 1, the brain scans and MRIs have turned out very positive and very encouraging,” Steve Nash told Vieira. “We’re waiting for her to wake up to prove that’s accurate. That’s the only way to tell. It’s doubtful she has shaken baby syndrome because she speaks so well.”

The brothers have recently filed a $50 million lawsuit against Herold and are contemplating suing the state of Connecticut and the city of Stamford as well for allowing Herald to keep the chimp and for ignoring warnings that the animal was an accident waiting to happen. Herold declined requests for a statement from NBC News.

Two years of surgeries ahead
The Cleveland Clinic issued an update Monday on Charla Nash’s condition. The statement reported: “Over the past ten days, Ms. Nash has made significant neurological and psychological improvement. She is now awake and is able to communicate with her family and caregivers. However, full cognitive recovery could take up to a year. As we have begun to communicate with her, it is clear that her injury has left her completely blind in both eyes, with no chance for improvement.”

The statement said that doctors are planning the first of what will be a long series of surgeries

Image: Chimpanzee who was killed by police after he attacked a woman.
Kathleen O'rourke  /  The Stamford Advocate viaAP file
Travis, 15, was shot dead by police after the Feb. 16 attack.
  that will take place over the next two years. “The first procedure will focus on restoring critical function and preventing infection,” the statement said. “Over time, surgical efforts will address her more complex functional needs and improve her aesthetics … Her initial reconstructive surgery will be focused solely on her facial trauma and not her hands, as these wounds have been stabilized. Discussion or consideration for a face transplant is premature at this time.”

Charla Nash’s brothers have established a Web site, friendsofcharlienash.com, where those interested can leave e-mail messages and even sound files that Mike Nash promised to take to his sister. He said he’s conveyed some of the prayers and wishes for recovery to his sister during his current visit.

“I try to read her letters sent by strangers and friends and tell her people are there for her and we’re there for her,” he told Vieira.

Charla Nash was attacked Feb. 16 in Stamford, Conn., when she answered a call from the chimp’s owner, Sandra Herold, to help settle the 200-pound animal down. Herold, 70, runs a towing company for which Charla worked as a dispatcher. The two women were friends, and Charla was well known to the 15-year-old chimp, Travis.

Video: Brother: Chimp victim’s condition is ‘encouraging’ (on this page) But when Charla Nash arrived at Herold’s home, Travis attacked her. Herold stabbed the chimp with a kitchen knife, but he would not leave off the attack. Herold was hysterical by the time she called 911, telling a dispatcher that her chimp was tearing her friend’s face off and begging police to come with guns to shoot and kill the pet she had raised from infancy.

Travis had appeared in commercials for Old Navy and Coke and made other TV appearances when he was younger, and was a celebrity in Stamford. He was toilet-trained, drank wine from a long-stemmed glass, dined on lobster and filet mignon, surfed the Internet looking at pictures and reportedly even slept with Herold. Travis reportedly bit an animal control officer a number of years ago. In 2003, he jumped out of Herold’s car and stopped traffic in downtown Stamford for two hours as police tried to corral him, but the incident was judged to be mischievous and not malicious. Herold has told NBC News there was never any indication that Travis would so viciously attack anyone.

Police who arrived to rescue Charla Nash shot Travis to death when he tried to attack them.

Since the attack, legislation has been introduced in Congress to stop interstate trafficking in chimpanzees and other primates.

Charla Nash has been described as a vibrant, independent and outgoing single mom who loved the outdoors and had once ridden on the professional rodeo circuit. Mike Nash said she had done an outstanding job of raising her daughter, Brianna. The girl has seen her mother and will go to Cleveland during her spring break beginning April 18 to spend a week visiting, Mike Nash said.

“Brianna’s a very strong and mature young lady,” he told Vieira. “My sister’s doing a wonderful job raising her. I told Brianna that I can’t take her place, so tell me when I’m in the wrong area, making the wrong decision. Brianna’s just a beautiful girl.”

For information on how you can help Charla Nash and send her your messages of hope, visit The Charla Nash Trust Web siteor The Friends of Charla Nashor call 1-866-228-5970.

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