It took over six years and more than 60 times under a knife for her to get where she is today. The blood of countless strangers pumps through her veins mixing with what is left of her own supply to power her pulse. The face of a woman she never met lies over where her own once radiated.
When she became an eligible candidate for her final surgery, a face transplant, she didn’t ask for extra collagen, or liposuction, or to make her cheekbones really pop. She asked for a face that reached her trachea, to have a left ear, the ability to blink, and vision in at least one eye.
Her name is Carmen Blandin Tarleton and on Oct. 23 she spoke to a tear-filled 1787 Room comprised of an array of Castleton campus community members and a film crew from ESPN’s weekly news magazine show E:60.
“Life took everything from me,” she said. “My eyesight. Half my hearing. My looks. My career. My financials.”
In the front row during her speech that was featured on ESPN as part of its coverage of Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Oct. 28, sat her daughter and Castleton senior Liza Tarleton. Surrounded by her friends and the women’s rugby team, Liza proudly supported her mom as the horrors of their past blended with the serenity that has finally become their present.
“The whole thing is very surreal,” Liza said.
On June 10, 2007, 14-year-old Liza and her 12-year-old sister, Hannah, locked themselves in the bathroom of their family home and called 911 as Carmen’s estranged husband beat her with a baseball bat and doused her with industrial strength lye.
After three-and-half months in a medically induced coma, Carmen awoke to a new reality with permanent disfigurement, burns that covered over 80 percent of her body, and blindness; but it was a reality that came just five days before Liza’s 15th birthday.
“I was very excited that I hadn’t missed it,” Carmen said.
In the months and years following the attack, Carmen said she would not dwell on the horror of her past, but rather lose herself in daydreams of her future. She said she dreamed of finding happiness and love again to make others around her happy again, too.
“I didn’t want to be what society said I would be,” she said. “I had two daughters at 12 and 14 when I was injured. I was not going to disappoint myself or burden them for what happened to their mother.”
Against the odds and unimaginable pain, Carmen worked with physical, occupational, and speech therapists to overcome immobility, total blindness, and communication barriers.
Today, seven and-a-half years after the attack, Carmen travels the nation telling her story to empower others to overcome their own adversities and has even authored her own book titled “Overcome Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.”
“I knew how powerful it would be for other people living with events that are haunting them,” she said of the book and her public speaking efforts.
Inspired by her mother’s strength, Liza said she also lives passionately and does not intend to slow down.
“That’s not the way to live,” she said.
The senior has backpacked throughout Central America and recently travelled to Cambodia, but has the itch to go abroad again next year. She has also rebuilt herself as individual in her time at Castleton. She said she found strength in the college community and especially as a member of the women’s rugby team.
“Rugby has kind of always been my own thing,” said Liza. “It definitely has that major aspect of family.”
This familial component she said is perhaps the most appealing part of the sport to her because her own family is such an important part of her life. Despite her lack of love for the spotlight, Liza said she continues to be a part of segments featured on national media including Oprah and E:60 because of how valuable it is to Carmen.
“It’s not really my cup of tea, I guess, ” Liza said. “But I do it to support my mom.”
After viewing the E:60 broadcast, sophomore Taylor Peters said he had a new appreciation for Liza’s optimism on life.
“She’s just always so positive,” he said. “I think the strength represented the school well.”
In a recent blog post, Carmen shared her approval of the segment.
“I was extremely happy how well the E:60 show was produced! Although difficult for some to watch, it certainly captured the intensity of those past moments,” she said.
Although she never got her left ear and is still considered legally blind, Carmen said she did regain what was most important to her. She still has her two daughters, will be able to see the birth of her first grandchild, and has even fallen in love again.
“I don’t regret anything that’s happened since June 2007,” she said.