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Charla Nash opens up about recent face transplant setback, living independently 7 years later

Meredith Vieira catches up with Charla Nash seven years after the face transplant that helped repair the damage from a brutal chimp attack.
/ Source: TODAY

Charla Nash, the Connecticut woman who received a face transplant after a horrific attack by a friend’s pet chimpanzee, had a minor setback last week when her body began to reject the transplant after doctors tried to wean her off anti-rejection drugs.

Meredith Vieira visited with Nash to catch up on all that has happened in the last few years, including Nash’s most recent trip to the hospital.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Nash told Vieira. “But then this one biopsy said a slight rejection.”

Nash was backing off her anti-rejection drugs as part of a military-funded study designed to determine whether patients who receive arm, hand, leg or face transplants can safely taper off the medications, which come with serious side effects, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

RELATED: What I've learned from the inspiring, compassionate Charla Nash

Though the experiment didn’t work in her case, Nash doesn’t regret taking part in it.

“It would help all the service men and women and other people getting hurt and needing transplants,” she said. “The study is not a failure. They’ve learned so much from all my testing and my input. It’ll help with the future going forward.”

Charla Nash
Charla in July 2015 holding a picture of herself before the the 2009 chimp attack.Courtesy of Shelly Sindland

Fortunately, there won't be lasting effects on Nash’s face. Once she’s back on the medications, doctors say her body should accept the transplanted face once again.

Nash’s odyssey started back in 2009 when her face was mangled during a vicious attack by a friend’s pet chimpanzee, which left her without a nose, eyes or lips. The mauling also left Nash permanently blind from an infection spread by the chimp.

RELATED: Charla Nash speaks about new face, new hopes

Vieira interviewed Nash several months after the attack. Already Nash was showing the resilience that has carried her through it all.

“I just want to get on with my life and get better,” she told Vieira at the time.

After numerous surgeries over the next two years, Nash went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where doctors performed the nation’s first double hand and face transplant. The hands failed to thrive, but the face transplant was a success.

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Now, Vieira asked: “Did you believe, back then, that you would ever reach this point? “

“No,” Nash said.

These days Nash lives on her own in a small apartment close to Brigham and Women’s. She has an aide to help her Monday through Friday, but manages on her own on the weekends — which is very important to her.

“I’ve always been independent,” she said. “So I just wanted to go back to what I had. And as far as help—I have just what I need.”

Charla Nash, Meredith Vieira
Vieira visited with Nash to catch up on all that has happened in the last few years, including Nash’s most recent trip to the hospital after her body began to reject the transplant.Courtesy of Shelly Sindland

With the help of a transport service for the disabled, Nash is able to get out of the house. That’s very important to her.

“You feel like you’re almost normal,” she said. “You feel like you’re a person again.”

Ever the fighter, Nash isn’t willing to accept limitations. She’s got a new goal to work toward.

“I want to ride horses again,” she told Vieira. “I don’t want to just sit around. I want to ride.”

“Do you think you will?” Vieira said.

“I will,” Nash assured her.

In the meantime, Nash has to deal with day-to-day struggles to make ends meet.

“I wish I had more gas and more showers, more care,” she said. “But you know, we can’t have everything, I guess. But I’m thankful for what I do have.”

A GoFundMe page "Help Charla Nash" has raised more than $13,000.

Despite unimaginable challenges, Nash's spirit is unbreakable and she still finds joy at every turn — especially in the mornings.

“I hear the birds singing,” she said. “And now that the sun is coming out, I can feel the sun. And it’s like another good day. Let’s get started.”

TODAY producer Josh Weiner and contributor Linda Carroll contributed to this report