On 10 June 2007, Carmen Tarleton, then 38, was at home with her young daughters in Thetford, Vermont in the US, when her estranged husband broke into the house. Herbert Rogers was looking for a man he supposed she was seeing, but finding no man there, he attacked Carmen. “I just lost it,” he told police later. He beat Carmen with a baseball bat so violently that he broke her arm and eye socket. Then he doused her in industrial-strength lye – a sodium hydroxide solution used in cleaning. One ear, her eyelids and much of her face was burned away. She suffered burns on 80% of her body.
I met Bohdan Pomohač, one of her surgeons, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “In terms of injuries inflicted by another human being, it’s certainly one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” he told me. Her face was almost completely destroyed; her family were able to recognise it was Carmen only by her teeth.
When people experience terrible head injuries, doctors can put them into a barbiturate coma in order to shut down brain function. This prevents the brain from damaging itself further by trying to keep going without an adequate blood supply.
Carmen remained in a coma for three months while Pomohač and his team performed 38 separate surgical operations. She was left covered in a patchwork of skin grafts, and these, together with all the blood transfusions she had received over the months, meant that she had become immunologically vaccinated against at least 98% of the population. She was blind, severely disfigured, and lacked many normal facial functions. She was in a lot of pain. But she was alive, and somehow, somewhere, the germ of something remained within her.
“Even when I first woke up from the coma I just knew it was such a big event, and it was so strange, that it had other meanings for me,” she says. “I could help a lot of people.” Read more