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Chimp attack victim speaks about new face, new hopes

Meredith Vieira couldn’t stop staring at Charla Nash’s face.

That’s nothing new for Nash – nearly three years after a horrific chimp attack literally tore her face off, she’s gotten used to people staring. What was new was the reason for the attention.

“Wow. You really look fantastic,” Vieira told Nash. “I’m just—I— I apologize. I'm looking at your face and I am in awe.”

After a full face transplant, Nash has begun venturing out into public again, no longer worried her severely disfigured face would frighten people. On Monday, she revealed that new face in an exclusive interview on TODAY.

As the donor face has begun molding to Nash’s underlying bone structure, Nash has begun returning to more of her normal life. She particularly remembered one day she went to the store with her brother.

While shopping they ran into a little girl, who said hello to Nash.

“That didn't happen before,” Nash told Vieira. “It was nice. The little girl was saying hi to me. I looked like I’ve got eyes and everything. …I’m not scaring anybody.”

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Because she was permanently blinded in the attack, Nash cannot see her own face. She can’t even feel it because the attack also took her hands. So she has to depend on the feedback of others.

“I’ve had people tell me I’m beautiful,” Nash told Vieira. “And they were not telling me I was beautiful before.”

Nash got her new face in a groundbreaking, 20-hour triple transplant surgery. Doctors replaced not only her face, but also the two hands ripped off in the horrific attack. The face thrived. Unfortunately there were problems with the hands. Because Nash developed pneumonia shortly after the transplant, her circulation was compromised and the hands began to deteriorate and doctors decided to remove them.

Related: Chimp attack victim reveals new face

At the time, Nash was struggling just to survive the operation.

"I found out later on that they — I had hands and they removed them," Nash told Vieira. "And it didn't really bother me because I was too sick to worry about that, you know? … And then later on, I was disappointed that, you know, I had them and they're gone again. But I'm hoping, you know, for in the future, that it can be done again."

The good news: doctors have told her that she might be able to try a hand transplant again in as little as a year.

And Charla’s face will continue to heal over the coming year, said Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of plastic surgery transplantation at Brigham and Women's Hospital. “What we have seen is that the face almost blends in and becomes the patient's own, to the point that I think that regular person passing by will not be even able to tell,” he told TODAY.

Related: Charla Nash is 'strong,' brother says after attack

For now, though, Nash is just happy to be able to actually chew food and to smell the world around her. Even scents the rest of us might find off-putting are wonderful to her: “I can smell the nurse that come in. I can smell their perfume and …. They all smell pretty.”

Nash’s daughter, Briana, feels like she’s gotten her mom back. The transplanted face has been molding to Nash’s bone structure and now she’s starting to look like she did before the attack, Brianna says.

“She looks similar,” Briana told Vieira. “I mean the nose is very similar. I’m still waiting for the underlying bone structure to take some shape on her cheeks. But it’s my mom.”

It has been a long journey since that horrifying day on Feb. 16, 2009.

Nash had come to visit her friend, Sandra Herold, to help with her pet chimp, Travis.

Travis was something of a local celebrity in their hometown of Stamford, Conn. He had appeared in commercials for Old Navy and Coca-Cola, been a guest on Maury Povich’s talk show, and was a familiar sight around town, riding in a car with his owners. But the chimp could also be aggressive, and Nash said she often felt uncomfortable around her friend's large, powerful "pet" before the attack.

Nash had just gotten out of her car when Travis spotted her, went berserk and attacked. A terrified Herold dialed 911 and Nash was rushed to the hospital where doctors managed to save her life, but not her face or her hands.

Nash was so terribly mauled that the policeman who responded to the call at first didn’t recognize Nash as human, and then, when he got closer, couldn’t tell if she was male or female.

Related: Experts try to explain chimp's rampage

After being released from the hospital, Nash was moved to an assisted-living facility, unable to eat solid food and breathing through a tube.

The Nashes know that their salvation came at the cost of someone else’s tragedy. And they are grateful beyond words to the family and the person who donated her new face.

“Words can’t even say enough, but that donation, you know, as hard as it was for them, was a wonderful gift for us, me and my family,” Nash told Vieira. “Because it really gave me a life back. It’s such a wonderful thing. I could not thank them enough. “

Charla Nash's family has established a fund for her care at nashtrust.com.

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