TODAY | November 21, 2011
MATT LAUER, co-host: Now to a TODAY exclusive, and the reason Meredith is back with us this morning. She recently caught up with chimpanzee attack victim, Charla Nash , who underwent a groundbreaking face transplant earlier this year. It is Charla 's first interview with a new face. Meredith , first of all, it's good to have you back, and I can't wait to see the story.
MEREDITH VIEIRA reporting: Yeah, it is great to be back especially with good news about Charla . I've gotten the -- had the opportunity to get to know her over the past few years and to really witness firsthand her story of survival and tremendous strength. And now she has a new face, which is a testament, not only to modern medicine, but also to her fierce determination to overcome the incredible challenges in her life. Charla Nash 's story might be unbelievable, if it wasn't all true. Her life was forever changed in a day, February 16th , 2009 .
Chimpanzee Owner: He's killing my friend!
911 Operator: Who's killing your friend?
Owner: My chimp! My chimpanzee!
VIEIRA: Charla was barely alive. A chimpanzee had taken off her nose, mouth and hands and left her permanently blind. Nearly three years later, following countless medical procedures, Charla 's great hope would come through. Surgeons at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston performed the country's first ever double hand and face transplants. Wow! You really look fantastic, Charlie .
Ms. CHARLA NASH: Thank you.
VIEIRA: I'm just -- I apologize, I'm looking at your face, and I am in awe. How are you feeling?
Ms. NASH: I'm doing good, but I've had a lot of setbacks. After I had the face and hand transplants, I had pneumonia. I got -- I was so sick they said I was dying.
VIEIRA: Just days after the surgery, doctors rushed Charla back into the OR to save her life. When you woke up and they said to you, 'The good news is, face transplant is looking great. The bad news is, because of an infection, we lost circulation, the kinds of circulation we need for your hands, and we had to remove them,' after having had a successful transplant. What was your reaction to that?
Ms. NASH: When I got better, then I felt disappointed that I had hands and they had to remove them.
VIEIRA: Doctors say in as little time as a year, Charla could be approved for another hand transplant surgery. She can now eat solid foods, has regained her sense of smell. And though she remains blind, she's been fitted with prosthetic eyes. Do you have any sense, even in your mind's eye, of what you look like now?
Ms. NASH: No.
Ms. NASH: But I've had people tell me I'm beautiful, and nobody ever told me I was beautiful before. So...
VIEIRA: Well, you do look beautiful. You look great.
Ms. NASH: Thank you.
VIEIRA: Can you touch your face with your thumb, do you ever do that just to feel the...
Ms. NASH: Yes, I can touch it. I can't really feel anything, but I know I'm touching my skin and my cheek. I can't feel like in the middle of my face, like the top lip and the nose. I lost all the nerves there, so it's going to be a long time before everything, you know, can work.
VIEIRA: And now you're able to eat solid food for a change. What do you get to eat that you couldn't before?
Ms. NASH: I had baked potato skins with cheese and sour cream. And I had french fries with Parmesan cheese .
VIEIRA: You like your junk food , don't you, Charlie ?
Ms. NASH: Yeah, I went to IHOP .
VIEIRA: IHOP , yeah.
Ms. NASH: I had two eggs over easy , bacon, hash brown potatoes and toast.
VIEIRA: Charla 's doctors say the healing will continue for the next year. Her face won't resemble the donor. Instead, it will conform to her own bone structure.
Dr. BOHDAN POMAHAC (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 the regular person passing by will not be even able to tell.
VIEIRA: Charla 's daughter, Briana , by her mom's side through it all, says she's still the same mom. What do you see when you look at your mom?
Ms. BRIANA NASH: I'm still waiting for some of the underlying bone structure to still take some shape on her cheeks, but it's my mom.
VIEIRA: On the day we met up with Charla , we took a special trip to the Boston Symphony Orchestra . So first time at the symphony for you, what did you think?
Ms. NASH: Nice.
VIEIRA: Nice. And later, a reminder of how her story has touched others.
Unidentified Woman: If you only knew how many people read about you and talked to you and prayed for you.
Ms. NASH: I know, I can hear all the prayers. They're in there for me. Thank you.
VIEIRA: And now Charla is speaking out, hoping to make a difference, encouraging legislation prohibiting wild animals as pets.
Ms. NASH: I lived in Connecticut , and there were restrictions against these animals, but they didn't enforce them.
VIEIRA: Charla , have you come to peace with what happened to you?
Ms. NASH: Well, I know I can't go back and change what happened, but I can go forward and think about helping with, you know, the future of these animals and people's safety. And I 'm glad I'm still here.
VIEIRA: And the person who gave this gift to you, who is no longer here, obviously, what would you say to that woman's family?
Ms. NASH: Words can't even say enough. It's really given me a life back. I mean, it is such a wonderful thing. I cannot thank them enough.
VIEIRA: Charla 's doctors said in giving her the face transplant , Matt , they were hoping to give her back her humanity. And she tells this story about the first time she went out and didn't have to wear a veil, and a little girl came up to her and said hello. And she realized in that moment she wasn't scaring people anymore.
LAUER: I'm not sure she ever lost her humanity just because of what we've heard from her over the years, but I know what you mean, exactly.
VIEIRA: But people attach that to a face. Exactly. She didn't.
LAUER: The hands. I mean, that was -- I didn't realize that they had to remove the hands. So is there any timetable? You mentioned that she could be in line for that?
VIEIRA: Yeah, it was a successful transplant, and that's what people have to remember. She developed an infection afterwards, pneumonia, which caused the circulation problem.
VIEIRA: They say when she regains her strength, within a year she could have...
VIEIRA: ...a hand -- face -- I mean hand transplants. And, at that point, she told me she was going to get a seeing eye dog and she'd be good to go. So that will give her real independence when she reaches that point. But she's an incredible woman.
LAUER: It's wonderful to see her doing so well. Great to see you as well.
VIEIRA: You too.
LAUER: Pleasure. Happy Thanksgiving.
VIEIRA: Happy Thanksgiving.