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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."
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!"