Story transcripts

A Brave Face

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producer: Phil Goyen

In this job, we’re constantly surprised and inspired by the strength of the human spirit. But Liz Hayes has never met anyone quite like Charla Nash.

Two years ago, Charla was savagely mauled by a friend's pet chimpanzee. She lost her hands, eyelids, nose and lips in the frenzied attack.

In fact, by the time help arrived, there was nothing much left of her face at all.

It's a wonder she survived. But Charla wanted more than that - she wanted to live. And thanks to an extraordinary face transplant, and her own fierce will, that's just what she's doing.

Full transcript:

LIZ HAYES: A woman's desperate pleas for help – as a chimpanzee unleashes a savage attack on her friend.

SANDRA: He ripped her face off! He tried...He tried to hurt me! Please! Please!

DISPATCHER: OK. I need you to calm down a little.

LIZ HAYES: The chimp is mauling the face and hands of 55-year-old single mum Paula Nash.

SANDRA: Please, go faster! Please, please...Sir…Please, please, please, please.

LIZ HAYES: Incredibly, Charla survives. What follows is an extraordinary story of the human spirit. And an amazing medical triumph of face transplant surgery.

CHARLA: I guess it wasn't my turn because I know I have a lot more to do yet. I'm not ready to go yet.

LIZ HAYES: Was there ever a time where you thought to yourself "it's just too overwhelming" – you know, "I could surrender here"?

CHARLA: I don't think I've never given up hope. I always know I'm going to get better.

LIZ HAYES: Charla Nash survived against all the odds and that might not have happened if weren't for the loving bond between this mother and her daughter Briana.

BRIANA: She's always had a drive to live. She's always been one to get out there and go do things and go for what she wants. And it just makes you think about human life and what it means to be a human and it's just it's not how we look at all. There's much more on the inside than we could ever see.

LIZ HAYES: Charla – or Charlie as she calls herself – and Briana made Stamford in Connecticut their home. For the one-time champion rodeo-rider, it was the perfect place to raise her daughter. And it's where Charlie was offered a regular job by an old friend, Sandra Herold. Sandra lived with an unlikely companion – a 14-year-old chimpanzee named Travis.

RICHARD: She would eat with Travis, they would sleep together, they would bathe together, they would go for walks. And in latter years, Travis became very obese because she would feed Travis lobster, filet mignon...Travis would drink from a wine glass.

LIZ HAYES: For Stamford Police Captain Richard Conklin, February 16 2009 would be a day he'd never forget. Travis was behaving like a wild animal. He'd stolen the house keys, unlocked a back door and escaped into the garden. Sandra tried to coax Travis back inside, but he became increasingly riled.

RICHARD: So at some point, Sandra calls Charla and asks her to come over to assist. And she's brought with her a little Elmo doll, which she holds out in front of here and squeaks in an effort to get Travis' attention. But within seconds, Travis violently attacks Charlie – and starts tearing her to pieces.

CHARLA: The thing I heard the most was the chimp screaming. Screaming and screaming and screaming.

LIZ HAYES: This frenzied attack between man and beast was over in minutes. Travis had not only ripped Charlie apart – he'd now begun eating her. Charlie was no match for this 90-kilogram chimpanzee. Sandra tried desperately to stop Travis – stabbing him with a kitchen knife.

SANDRA: He looked at me like, "mum what did you do?" Then I tried to get him off of her again and I couldn't pull him, he was just too strong.

RICHARD: She stabs her beloved chimpanzee, Travis, several times. And these were very deep wounds. And she was so frightened. And at that point, called 911.

HERALD: Please!

DISPATCHER: What's the problem with your friend? I need to know.

HERALD: Send the police up, with a gun! With a gun! He ripped her face off. He's trying to attack me. Please, please hurry!

DISPATCHER: OK. I need you to calm down a little.

LIZ HAYES: Nine minutes into the emergency call, two officers arrive …

RICHARD: Travis comes around to the driver's-side door of the patrol car. He's just covered in Charla's blood.

SANDRA: Shoot him! Shoot him!

DISPATCHER: Sandra, stay in your car.

SANDRA: Shoot him!

LIZ HAYES: They do shoot – finally killing Travis. Sandra's lifelong companion and pet was dead – and her friend Charlie lay lifeless.

SANDRA: What more could I say? I mean, could I say any more? I loved him but I loved her too. And I would have done anything for this not to happen.

LIZ HAYES: Except for a weak pulse, Charlie's savaged body was barely alive. She had no eyes, no nose, no mouth – and just the thumb on her right hand. Were you even shocked by what had happened to you?

CHARLA: Yeah. I was amazed that I was still alive.

BRIANA: Before I'd seen her for the first time, I was very, very afraid of what I was going to see cause I had no idea what to expect.

LIZ HAYES: For 20-year-old daughter, Briana, seeing her mum so disfigured was secondary. Your first concern was that your mum might die?

BRIANA: Yeah. That was my biggest fear – "well, what if she doesn't wake up?" So when I finally saw her when she did wake up, it was just an exciting and relieving moment.

LIZ HAYES: What was it about your mum that you saw that you did recognise about her?

BRIANA: I was really able to see – she had the bone structure and her cheeks and like, her face – it was disfigured but it was her face. And I think I was really able to hold onto that through everything.

LIZ HAYES: Conscious of her face, Charlie wore a veil. But there was no hiding her extraordinary resilience.

CHARLA: I know I always had an attitude that whatever came my way, you know, I'd overcome it. I wouldn't let it hold me back.

LIZ HAYES: But her appearance did worry Charlie. Doctors offered a solution – a full face transplant and two new hands. Briana, what did you think when it was suggested mum might have a face transplant?

BRIANA: The possibility of having a face transplant was phenomenal and I just wouldn't have even thought of it – that my mum might go on as if nothing ever happened.

LIZ HAYES: Using powerful microscopes, the team had to rebuild the intricate maze of nerves and vessels to enable blood flow to Charlie's new body parts. Coordinating the procedure was Dr Bohdan Pomahac.

DOCTOR POMAHAC: Everybody knows their role and everybody knows what is expected from them. And that makes it, in the big picture, a lot easier – cause all the units almost work simultaneously but also independently in this big complex one operation.

LIZ HAYES: It took surgeons six hours to attach the hands. Next was Charlie's new face.

DR POMAHAC: We needed the entire upper palette, all the way back to the soft palette, so the entire palette with teeth had to be transplanted as well.

LIZ HAYES: After 20 hours, the surgery was over.

DOCTORS: Cheese!

DR POMAHAC: Thank you

LIZ HAYES: It all seemed a success. But then Charlie took a turn for the worse.

DR POMAHAC: We found out that Charla had unfortunately really bad pneumonia and very severe sepsis – causing the patient to be really, really sick.

LIZ HAYES: Without enough blood flow to Charlie's new hands, surgeons had no choice but to remove them. Doctors here at the hospital had performed face transplants before but few surgeons in the world had attempted to give a patient both face and hands. For the hand transplants to fail was traumatic for everyone but for Charlie, just getting a new face meant everything.

CHARLA: It's a wonderful thing and words can't express the gratitude that I had this opportunity to live a better life.

LIZ HAYES: Do you touch your face? Can you feel your face?

CHARLA: Yeah, I can feel it now. The nose and the upper lip I can't feel yet but little by little, it's coming back. I can touch the cheek and forehead down here, so it's getting there.

LIZ HAYES: The transplant of course didn't just give you a face – it gave you more, didn't it?

CHARLA: Oh yeah, definitely. It brought my life back.

LIZ HAYES: Really?

CHARLA: Yeah.

LIZ HAYES: Today, Charlie lives in an assisted care centre – her days filled with rehabilitation and speech therapy. Just about anything is possible. You've already proved that. With every day, Charlie gets another step closer to her former life –enjoying some of the simple pleasures most of us take for granted. What were you wanting to achieve by having the face transplant?

CHARLA: To be able to eat some food. I was only drinking everything from a straw and my goal was to be able to eat again.

LIZ HAYES: You do dream of the day of having a hamburger or hotdog?

CHARLA: And pizza and a steak...

LIZ HAYES: All those good things in life.

CHARLA: Yeah.

LIZ HAYES: Charlie's working towards more surgery, building her strength to undergo another double hand transplant. She wants a second prosthetic eye. And in time, expects to have a fully functioning face. But what Charlie would really love is to get back on a horse.

BRIANA: We're by the horse. His name's Gunner.

CHARLA: Hey Gunner! Aw! Come on, Gunner, we won't hurt you.

BRIANA: You want to reach out?

CHARLA: I feel whiskers!

LIZ HAYES: So much of this story is tragic.

SANDRA: I loved him but I loved her too. And I would have done anything for this not to have happened.

LIZ HAYES: Sandra, the owner of Travis died from an aneurysm 12 months after the attack. And Charlie will have to sue the state if she's to pay mounting medical bills. It's been an horrific journey – but if ever there was an example of determination and strength, Charlie Nash is it.

BRIANA: It's just amazing with the human spirit just how deep it goes. It's not something that you can see, it's something that's just there and it's powerful and it's just given me the ability over time...Instead of when I talk to someone – instead of just looking at them, I hear them. I really hear them.

LIZ HAYES: For somebody having a tough day today you would say?

CHARLA: Taking time to relax, take the day off it'll get better if you want it to get better.

LIZ HAYES: Are you at the point where you can say "life is good" yet?

CHARLA: Life's getting better. It's coming around slowly but yeah, it's getting better. It's hard, but it's better.

LIZ HAYES: And it will be good one day.

CHARLA: I hope so.

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