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Lisa Dejong  /  The Plain Dealer/LANDOV
Connie Culp, the nation's first face transplant patient, says she's looking to the future three years after a 23-hour operation gave her a new face. She encourages fellow transplant patient Charla Nash, victim of a horrifying chimp attack: "Just take it slow; you'll be out dancing."
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 11/22/2011 9:49:33 AM ET 2011-11-22T14:49:33

Only a few people in the world can understand what face transplant patient Charla Nash has been through. But Connie Culp knows, and she was rooting for the chimp attack victim as Nash revealed her new appearance on TODAY Monday.

"I was glad to see her doing so well," said Culp, 48, of Bloomingdale, Ohio, who became the nation's first face transplant patient nearly three years ago. "I've been praying for that girl. She's been going through a lot."

Culp said she listened avidly as Nash, 58, of Stamford, Conn., discussed her recovery after the May surgery in an exclusive interview with NBC News' Meredith Vieira. Culp is legally blind and retains only a bit of vision, but she said by all accounts, Nash's new face is lovely.

"From what I hear, she looks great," Culp said in a telephone interview with TODAY.com.

Culp, too, has endured much since 2004, when her then-husband shot her in the face at point-blank range in a botched murder-suicide attempt. Her transplant was conducted during a tense 23-hour operation at the Cleveland Clinic.

Since then, though, she says her appearance — and her life — have steadily improved. She said Nash, too, likely will be able to expect gains in her abilities to speak, to smell, to feel sensations.

Today, Culp can smell again, but "only good things" such as cooking, perfume and the flowers her 4-year-old old grandson, Maddox, brings her. And after years of soft food, she can eat anything she wants, including a good steak.

Culp says her face has softened and thinned out and now feels more like her old self. Like Nash, Culp is now able to go out in public without attracting stares and comments. In fact, she said, she's more likely to be stopped by admirers at the grocery store.

"They all tell me how positive I am and how amazing I am. They all hug me," she said. "It's really awesome. There's a lot of good people out there."

Culp says she spends her days "like a normal person." Her two grown children and her grandson live nearby and she has the constant company of her dog, Baby Girl. She still likes to play pool and throw darts and has recently become an avid shuffleboard player.

Still there's no denying that it's been an ordeal, Culp said. "You have ups and downs. We're human."

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Culp's ex-husband, Tom Culp, was released from prison in September. Culp said she hasn't had contact with him, though her son has. She tries not to dwell on the details of the shooting — or on the way she used to look.

"I just don't think about it and go on," she said.

Culp says she has followed Nash's progress, but that the two women haven't met or had contact, partly because Culp was waiting to see how Nash would come through her transplant and recovery.

"I didn't want to give her false hope," Culp said. "I didn't know where they were going with it."

But now, six months after Nash's surgery, Culp feels confident that her fellow face transplant patient will do well.

"Just take it slow and you'll be out there dancing," she said. "Just get out there and go, girl!"

Related stories:

Charla Nash speaks out about new face, new hopes

Victim, survivor, mom: Charla Nash and her daughter Briana

Producer's notebook: Behind the scenes with Charla Nash

First face transplant patient meets donor's family

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: Facing the future

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  1. Connie Culp was in her early 30s when this photo was taken, long before the 2004 attack in which her then-husband shot her at point-blank range. Culp is now recovering from the first face transplant in the United States, performed at the Cleveland Clinic in 2008. (Lisa Dejong / The Plain Dealer via Landov) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Photos taken before and after Connie Culp's face transplant in December 2008 show the damage before the 23-hour surgery, left, and how she appeared after. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Alicia Culp uses a straightening iron on the hair of her mother, Connie Culp, last fall as grandson Maddox, then 3, plays nearby. Alicia says the texture of Connie's hair has changed because she's still recovering from face transplant surgery. Connie Culp has relied on the help of her children and the companionship of her dog, Baby Girl, as she has recovered. (Lisa Dejong / The Plain Dealer via Landov) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Connie Culp hugs Becky Kasper, daughter of the woman whose face was donated for Culp's transplant. Anna Kasper died of a heart attack, but her husband and children said she would have wanted to help someone like Culp. The famlies met last year. (Neil Lantzy - Cleveland Clinic Center / Plain Dealer via Landov) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Connie Culp giggled as she joined grandson Maddox on a seesaw at a playground hear her Ohio home last fall. Culp says her appearance -- and her life -- are continuing to get better in the years after she became the first patient to receive a face transplant in the U.S. "I don't think I'm any different than I was before," she says. (Lisa Dejong / The Plain Dealer /Landov) Back to slideshow navigation
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