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Video: Chimp attack victim’s new face ‘looks fantastic’

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    >> "today's update" charla nash , the woman viciously attacked by a chimpanzee in connecticut in 2009 . now more than two years later she has a new lease on life thanks to an extraordinary surgery. we'll speak to her daughter in a moment. first, nbc's jeff rossen is in boston this morning with the exclusive story. jeff, good morning.

    >> reporter: hey, ann. good morning. look, it's a miracle that charla nash survived in the first place. travis the chimp ripped off her face and both of her hands, left her blind, but this morning a new miracle inside this boston hospital behind me. charla nash just got a new face. it's a transplant that's been kept secret until now. inside this boston operating room they are making history . the first ever face and double hand transplant in the u.s. it is a major milestone for charla nash , a loving mother who looked like this until she was attacked by a chimp and left so seriously disfigured she wore a veil. charla spoke with nbc news just weeks before her life-changing operation.

    >> my face and hands together. that would be nice. all at once. being able to do everything on my own.

    >> reporter: it is a risky surgery that took 20 hours and more than a dozen of the country's top doctors.

    >> transplanting a face and hands together is really unparalleled. just the complexity of it logistically and surgically makes it probably the most challenging thing we can do.

    >> reporter: charla isn't revealing her new face yet. she's still healing. these photos were taken as the family saw her face for the first time. by the bed, her brother steve and charla's teenage daughter brianna. it's been a long, difficult road for them all. two years ago charla was visiting her friend who had a pet chimp named travis . without warning the chimp went on the attack. it was as violent as it gets. the chimp took off charla's lips, ears, nose, mouth and hands. travis 's owner called 911.

    >> he's killing my friend.

    >> who's killing your friend?

    >> my chimp. my chimpanzee.

    >> oh, your chimpanzee is killing your friend.

    >> yes. she's --

    >> ripped apart, hurry up.

    >> reporter: charla's been in treatment ever since and will never see again, permanently blind. she keeps fighting.

    >> you're kind of slow.

    >> i'm kind of slow?

    >> reporter: meredith vieira met with charla last june at brig ham and women's hospital in boston .

    >> why didn't you give up?

    >> everybody here -- my daughter.

    >> reporter: just days after her surgery there were complications. doctors had to remove her transplanted hands. another obstacle for a woman who's been through so much.

    >> the thing i hate about waiting is not being home somewhere. but i can wait. i just want to be home, not in a facility.

    >> reporter: charla is a fighter. even with the complication from the surgery she is not giving up on new hands. doctors say they can try again for a double hand transplant but have to wait at least six months for her to heal. one other note about the face transplant , for charla nash , this isn't just about cosmetics. for the first time since the attack she can smell again, eat solid food again. again, things we do every day b but she has not been able to do since the attack. doctors say it's hard the to say when she can do those things because every patient heals at a different pace.

    >> thank you so much for reporting on this. charla nash 's daughter is here for an exclusive interview to let us know how her mom is doing. and in boston we are joined by charla nash 's surgeon from brigham & women's hospital. good morning to you both.

    >> good morning.

    >> pleasure to be here.

    >> i'm glad to have you, doctor. first, we'll start with you, brianna. you have been able to see your mom's face. how does she look?

    >> fantastic. like you'd never believe that something like that could be done. she's just like anyone else .

    >> when you first saw her face it must have been very meaningful to you.

    >> very.

    >> do you remember that very moment?

    >> it was so good to see that she can have an experience just like everyone else. i'm so excited for her to learn to use it and let it become a part of her.

    >> i know, doctor, the surgery took, as i understand it, 20 hours, 14 surgeons working simultaneously at multiple sites. i understand that we have animation now from your hospital that gives us an idea of how this happened. can you explain how the transplant actually works?

    >> yes. we took tissues from the donor that included the skin, underlying muscle of the face and also the nerves that power it and provide sensation in the upper palate. the whole thing was put on charla and recreateded.

    >> this is the first time there was a transplant for the face and hands in the united states . so your mom is making history .

    >> that's correct.

    >> can you tell us, does she look anything like she used to look? do you have a sense about that?

    >> it was a little swollen so it's hard to tell. but her nose doesn't look so different from how it was before.

    >> so, doctor, people will want to know. is she -- will she have the face of the donor because of the transplant?

    >> everything indicates based on what we know that she will not resemble the donor. she will be looking like someone a little different than she was before the accident but different than the donor.

    >> what has your mom said about all of this?

    >> i don't know yet. i haven't been able to speak to her.

    >> she's not been able to see her own face. she's in icu recovering.

    >> right. i have yet to speak to her. when i went she was still sedated.

    >> she was excited going into this.

    >> right.

    >> did she talk about what it meant to have this opportunity?

    >> she really wants to dpgain her independence. it's so important to her. this is a large step in the process where she can be independent and be part of our community again.

    >> i know that the doctor and you, everyone wants to protect the identity of the donor's family. so you are not talking about when the surgery happened. i know there was a statement releaseded by your family thanking everyone who helped your mother. is there anything you would like to say to the donor family this morning?

    >> just that what they have done for us is really just bettered my mom's life, my life. it's a big step for my mom's recovery and normalizing.

    >> you know, you're a great girl. and i know meredith who cared so much about your mom is cheering this morning along with everyone else listening because of our covering the stories all of these years. thank you for being here.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> she just passeded her college freshman year. congratulations on that. doctor, thanks for joining us and for your work. we look forward to hearing how charla is doing.

TODAY contributor
updated 6/10/2011 10:47:50 AM ET 2011-06-10T14:47:50

For the past two years, Charla Nash has veiled her face to cover the damage from a vicious attack by her friend’s pet chimpanzee that left the Connecticut mom blind in both eyes and without a nose, ears or lips. The chimp also tore off both of Charla’s hands.

Charla Nash's daughter, Briana, told TODAY about seeing her mom's new face.

Now, thanks to a ground-breaking transplant surgery, Charla has gotten a new face. In a grueling, 20-hour operation, a 30-member surgical team under the leadership of Dr. Bohdan Pomahac at Brigham and Women's Hospital performed a full face and double hand transplant. 

When the surgery was over, Charla’s brother and daughter Briana went to visit her in recovery and saw her new face for the first time.

“She looks fantastic,” Briana told TODAY’s Ann Curry in an exclusive interview. “You’d never believe something like that could be done. She looks just like everyone else. It was so good to see she can have an experience just like everyone else. I’m just so excited for her to learn to use it and let it become part of her life.”

Charla Nash as she looked before the injuries she suffered when she was mauled by a chimpanzee.

Because doctors transplanted not only a face, but also two hands at the same time, Charla’s surgery last month was a medical first in the United States. Unfortunately the hands failed to thrive as she struggled with pneumonia which led to low blood flow to her new hands. They were removed.

But overall, her recovery and future look excellent. Her doctors say they can try again when new donor hands become available.

“Transplanting a face and hands together is basically an unparalleled quest,” Pomahac, Charla’s lead surgeon, told Curry. “The complexity, logistically and surgically, I think makes it the most challenging thing we can do these days.”

Pomahac described the surgery to Curry:

“We took tissues from the donor that included the skin and underlying muscle of the entire face,” he said. “But we also took the nerves that power it and provide sensation. And the upper palate. And the whole unit was transplanted on Charla.”

Video: Charla Nash’s daughter, doctor reveal transplant news on TODAY (on this page)

Pomahac predicts that the donated tissue will eventually conform to Charla’s underlying bone structure, allowing her look something like she did before the attack.

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“From what we know, she will not resemble the donor,” Pomahac told Curry. “She will be looking like someone a little different than she was before the accident, but different than the donor.”

The name of the donor was not disclosed to maintain her family's privacy.

The donor can be as much as 20 years younger or up to 10 years older than the recipient and must have the same blood type and similar skin color and texture.

Experts not connected with the Boston case said it was medically riskier than previous transplants, but not unethical.

"Hand transplants and face transplants are big operations. When you combine the two big operations, it can be a challenge," said Dr. Joseph Losee of the University of Pittsburgh, which has done three double and two single hand transplants and is preparing to offer face transplants soon.

Dr. Warren Breidenbach, who led the nation's first hand transplant, in 1999, at Jewish Hospital and the University of Louisville, said:

"It is completely ethical, and the proper thing to do, to do the face and the hands at the same time."

Doing them separately, or attempting another hand transplant for Nash in the future, raises the risk of rejection because tissue from two different donors would be involved, said Breidenbach, who is now chief of reconstructive and plastic surgery at the University of Arizona.

Story: Texas man gets first full face transplant in US

Nash's was the third full face transplant in the U.S.

Hoping to eat on her own

Charla was visiting her friend, Sandra Herold, in 2009, when Herold’s chimp went berserk and attacked. Doctors were able to save Charla’s life, but she’s been in an assisted-living facility ever since being released from the hospital, unable to eat solid food and still breathing through a tube.

Charla and her family had hoped that the transplant operation would allow her to return home and lead a more normal life. “Getting my face and hands together, that would be nice,” she told TODAY before the surgery. “Being able to do everything on my own, wash myself and stuff with my own hands.”

Video: Archive video: Meredith Vieira’s intimate interview with Charla Nash (on this page)

Over the next several months she will develop more control over facial muscles and more feeling, letting her breathe through her nose and develop her sense of smell. She remains blind.
High on Charla’s list was being able to do things most of us take for granted. “I want be able to eat on my own,” she said. “I want to be able to hold a cheeseburger or a hot dog in my hand and put it in my own mouth and eat.”

Seeing her mom again

For her part, Briana can already see parts of her old mom in the new face.

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“Her face was a little swollen so it’s still hard to tell, but her nose doesn’t look so different from how it was before,” she told Curry. “And the structure … it’s taking to her underlying facial structure.”

Charla’s family is immensely grateful to the family that donated the face and hands transplanted in the operation. In a statement released today they wrote:

“We wish to thank the donor and her family for giving Charla a new face and hands. We mourn the loss of your loved one and share in your sadness. Your incredible gift to Charla is generous and kind beyond words.”

Editor’s note: There are no photos of Charla Nash’s new face because she is still healing in the hospital, but we hope to show photos at a later date.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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