From November 15-19, 2009, the Valley News published a five-part series about Carmen Tarleton, the Thetford woman who suffered a brutal attack at the hands of her ex-husband in June 2007.
Herbert Rodgers will spend the rest of his life in prison for beating his former wife and disfiguring her with lye. Doctors initially held out only a slim hope that Carmen would survive. More than two years after the attack, however, she has not only survived -- she has done her best to thrive.
Over the last year, Carmen and her family allowed Valley News photographer Jennifer Hauck and reporter Mark Davis to chronicle their fight against the odds. The story told by their pictures and words is sometimes a difficult one to behold. But it is the story of a courageous journey, and an inspiring one.
On Christmas morning 2008, a year and a half after she was given only a slim chance to live, Carmen Tarleton awoke early. Her sister, Kesstan Blandin, lay in bed next to her, as she had every morning since Carmen returned from the hospital. Her two teenage daughters slept in their own rooms.
The morning was peaceful, but Carmen had a nasty fever. Ever since the attack, her body temperature had fluctuated wildly. With almost all of her skin ruined by chemicals, she could no longer sweat -- the body's way of cooling down -- and she had little protection against the cold.
A few weeks before, she had undergone one of the more than 40 skin graft operations that doctors would eventually perform on her. This time, they had taken a strip of skin from her lower back, one of the few places on her body that escaped the chemicals, and sewn it onto the top of her head to try to heal a large open wound. Both places hurt that morning.
I am miserable, she thought. But it was Christmas, and she was doing her best to be excited with her daughters, Hannah, 14, and Liza, 16.
But as she sat on her couch in the softest pajamas she owned, Carmen couldn't see the lights on the tree or the look on her daughters' faces as they opened their new iPods and clothes.
Carmen, then 40, was blind.
A year earlier, Carmen had just arrived home from a six-month stay in a Boston hospital, and had been far too weak to do her own Christmas shopping. Family members, community donors and former co-workers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center bought presents for Hannah and Liza.
This year, Carmen had insisted -- over the warnings of her doctors and family -- that she would shop for her children. So she and Kesstan drove to Route 12A in West Lebanon one December evening, stopping at a couple big-box stores and filling their cart, as Carmen, a single mother, had done so many times before.
During the drive, the jostling of the car sent waves of pain through her body, and the trip left her tired. But, she would later say, the physical pain was worth it.
"I always pay a price if I overdo it, but there are some things I need to do because it helps in other recoveries," Carmen reflected.
"My recovery hasn't just been my physical recovery. It has also been ... my mental and psychological recovery."
Shopping for her daughters' gifts, Carmen said, meant that her recovery was beginning to draw to a close.
She was trying to move on from a horror almost too grotesque to believe.
On June 10, 2007, in the middle of the night, Carmen's estranged husband, Herbert Rodgers, broke into her Thetford home, beat her with a baseball bat and, with her two daughters in the house, poured industrial strength lye all over her body.
He thought she was seeing another man.
Carmen's head, neck, chest, stomach, arms, legs and thighs -- more than 80 percent of her body -- were covered in chemical burns, eating away almost everything recognizable, leaving what was left a ghostly white.
Her lips were blackened, her left ear burned off, and the tip of her nose destroyed. The membranes of her eyes seeped out.
Doctors said her injuries were the worst they had ever seen, and gave her little chance of surviving. Television reporters told their viewers that images of Carmen would be disturbing for younger viewers. Some nurses assigned to her care asked to be reassigned.
In the more than two years since the attack, Carmen has survived. Through a fierce will to live, to wake up and do what needed to be done and laugh and cry and then wake up and do it again, she has moved on.
"The great thing about Carmen, and the reason I believed she would turn this into something meaningful, is Carmen is one of the most simple and pragmatic people I know," said Kesstan, who devoted more than a year of her own life to help her sister heal.
"You can only idealize her for so long, because her practicalness and realness will come through. What served her so well in this is her pragmatic ability to put one thing, one foot, in front of the other. She is very grounded in the world."
For the past 12 months, the Valley News has followed Carmen's ongoing recovery from the 2007 attack, from hospital trips to courtroom visits to a daily routine that would slowly become more normal.
After the attack, Carmen underwent more than 50 surgeries, most of them aimed at two goals: Repairing her skin, and -- in a long shot that Carmen nervously embraced -- restoring her vision.
But while medical concerns were inescapable, they played but one part in her life.
Carmen resumed her role as a single parent to two teenage daughters, and grew closer to her older sister. And she has struggled to accept her role as a symbol of ... the miracles of modern medicine? Female empowerment? The human will to endure the unimaginable?
She's not sure about all that. 'Something Grave Had Happened' Cell phone reception was spotty as Kesstan Blandin drove up Interstate 89, but there was no urgent need to call anyone. She had taken a red eye flight from Los Angeles to Manchester the night before, June 9, 2007, and was not on a tight schedule.
An Upper Valley native, Kesstan had just finished graduate school in Santa Barbara, Calif., and, as she had she had done at other junctures in her life, had decided to get rid of most of her belongings and move somewhere else.
Unattached and with no children, Kesstan's only responsibility was writing her psychology dissertation, and she could do that anywhere. She chose Portland, Maine: It reminded her of a city in Ireland she had recently visited, and it would put her within driving distance of Thetford, where her sister Carmen Tarleton -- one year her junior -- lived with her two nieces.
In recent weeks, Kesstan had given away most of her furniture and CDs, her computer and her dishes.
She kept about six boxes of clothes, books and personal mementos, and had them shipped to Carmen's house, where she planned to spend the summer catching up with her sister and nieces before settling into Portland.
Around 8 a.m., on June 10, 2007, she had landed in Manchester, hopped into a rental car and headed to Thetford.
She called Carmen's house from the car. No one picked up. Kesstan assumed everyone was still sleeping, and left a voice message.
"My plane landed and I'm on the road," she said. "I will be there soon."
She drove on, alone with her thoughts and the radio, and soon got a phone call. It wasn't from Carmen or the girls. It was her sister-in-law, Jean Blandin, who lived in Grantham.
"Carmen is on her way to Boston," Jean said. "Herb attacked her with some sort of acid. I don't know anything else."
Jean also mentioned Carmen's eye. Something had gotten into it, she said.
It was as if every other word she heard was in a foreign language, Kesstan would later recall. "It took a few minutes to sink in that something grave had happened."
Kesstan pulled off the highway in Grantham, and went to Jean's home. The two women drove to Boston, checked into a Howard Johnson's hotel downtown near Brigham and Women's Hospital, where they were told Carmen was being treated. Family members, including Carmen's brother, Donovan, and her mother, Joan, began flying in from across the country and eventually congregated at the hospital.
Kesstan, Joan and Donovan walked inside the hospital, stepped into the elevator and rode to the seventh floor, the burn trauma intensive care unit. A trauma doctor greeted them in a waiting room. He sat down, leaned forward, rested his chin in his right hand.
"Wow," he muttered. "I have never seen anything like this in my life." A Slim Chance The doctor began to describe Carmen's injuries to her family.
Lye, he told them, burns for 72 hours before it stops, and it had been less than two days. The chemical that had been absorbed by Carmen's skin could eat straight through her flesh, into her bones, by the time it was done. Doctors could do little for her until it stopped, he said -- they couldn't even conduct an exploratory surgery to assess the damage.
"Should I go in there and say goodbye to my sister?" Kesstan asked.
"The chances of her surviving are slim," he replied.
Joan, Donovan and Kesstan donned gowns and caps, masks and plastic gloves and slowly approached the room where Carmen was being kept under sedation.
Kesstan walked slightly ahead, and gently pushed open the double doors.
"I felt like when those doors parted, part of the world parted for me," Kesstan would say later.
A gown and bandages covered much of the body that lay in front of her, and the parts that weren't, covered were black. Kesstan recognized only her sister's hands, and her teeth.
Kesstan walked to the right side of the bed, and took Carmen's right hand.
"We're here for you," she said into Carmen's right ear, the only one remaining.
Carmen squeezed Kesstan's hand and started shaking her legs. She had heard.
"There is my life before that moment," Kesstan said, "and there is my life after that moment."
Carmen Tarleton clung to her sister Kesstan's left arm as they walked up to the witness stand, their steps matching and deliberate, but not slow.
Carmen settled into the seat in the middle of the U-shaped podium, her ex-husband a few feet away, his hands and ankles shackled. Since the last time she saw Herbert Rodgers -- the last time she saw anything -- he had grown a white beard, and his frame had thinned.
It was a February morning this year, dreary and cool. Inside the courthouse, Carmen tried to explain to the judge what the last 19 months of her life had been like. The pain was physical, emotional and unending, she said. "The hardest part about this happening is being blind," Carmen said, her voice unwavering. "I can't express to the court how it feels to be called unrecognizable and you can't see it. I can't explain to the court how it feels when you hear, 'These scene are graphic, viewers beware,' and they're talking about me, and I can't see what they're talking about."
A Painful Trip
The day began with Carmen searching for the phone number for Thetford Academy. Her sister, Kesstan Blandin, asked: "You want me to call?"
No, said Carmen. "Can you give Liza and Hannah permission to get out of school at 1 p.m. for our court date?" Carmen asked a school secretary.
In a few hours, Tarleton's ex-husband, Herbert, the man who helped raise Liza and Hannah, was scheduled to plead guilty to attacking Carmen. Under the terms of a plea deal, he would agree to spend the rest of his life in jail. But first, Carmen would get the chance to tell the judge how Herbert's assault had affected her.
In recent weeks, she had grown stronger. She had gained five pounds, and her appetite was increasing.
Her mother, Joan Blandin, brought Carmen a bowl of oatmeal.
"Don't spill it," Joan said, nervously.
Tarleton spooned oatmeal into her mouth, which, because of wounds that destroyed much of her skin, was half-closed. As she ate, most of the food made it into her mouth, but some dribbled onto her chest.
On the way to the Orange District Court on the Chelsea green, Kesstan drove and Carmen sat in the front passenger seat. As the car followed Route 113 through West Fairlee and Vershire, it shuddered as it hit every frost heave. The shocks sent waves of pain through Carmen's burned skin.
The 25-mile trip to court took Kesstan and Carmen past landmarks of their childhood. The girls lived in three different houses in West Fairlee before moving to a home their father remodeled on Lake Fairlee, when Carmen was 10. Eventually, after their parents divorced, the girls moved to Lebanon.
Kesstan, who had barely lived in the area since graduating from high school, excitedly waved at each former home. But as they approached the Vershire-Chelsea town line, Carmen grew anxious.
"We almost there?" Carmen asked.
Though there would be no trial, Carmen still planned to take the witness stand. Lawyers had arranged to combine two legal matters that usually require separate hearings -- Herbert's official change of plea to guilty and his sentencing -- into one.
As they approached the white wooden courthouse, one of the oldest in Vermont, Carmen talked to her sister about the time she would spend testifying in court.
"Kess," she said, "if I say I need to go to the bathroom, that means I'm sick to my stomach."
A Growing Anger
Carmen graduated from Lebanon High School in 1986 and married her first husband in 1992. She was 24. He was 41. They were engaged in December, bought a house in Fairlee in March, married in June, and welcomed their first child, Liza, in September.
It was too fast, Carmen would later say, and after a few years, the relationship collapsed. After getting a divorce, Carmen wanted to begin anew.
She had lived in the Upper Valley, almost all of her life, but flew across the country with her daughters, Liza, 3, and Hannah, 1. Kesstan, never one to stay in any place for too long, had recently moved to Los Angeles. Carmen decided to join her.
After landing a job at UCLA Medical Center as a bedside nurse, Carmen met a medical supply salesman named Herbert Rodgers. He was friendly and outgoing and all the nurses seemed to like him. They met in 1997, married in 2001, and for several years, enjoyed a happy life. He doted on his stepdaughters, and could always make Carmen laugh. "We had a lot of good times," Carmen would later say.
But after a few years, Carmen began to long for Vermont. They lived in a part of Los Angeles that was increasingly infested by gangs, and she worried about the high schools Liza and Hannah would attend.
Carmen made up her mind -- she and the girls would return to the Upper Valley. Carmen wanted Herbert to join them, but she made her intentions clear. "If he didn't want to, I was willing to let him go," Carmen said. "He had said a few times, when he was frustrated, 'I don't know if I want to be with you.' "
Herbert, who had grown up outside Philadelphia before moving to Los Angeles, eventually decided to come along. In 2006, they bought a house on Latham Road in Thetford. Carmen took a nursing job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and Liza and Hannah enrolled in Thetford Academy.
Mother and daughters settled into a happy routine, but Herbert was unhappy and felt out of place in Vermont. The marriage crumbled, and Herbert moved to a place of his own in Hartford. They separated in February 2007. But his anger only grew.
'I Just Lost It'
Herbert would later say that he turned to God for guidance. Herbert gave God until his birthday, on June 9, 2007, to tell him what to do. God apparently did not answer, so Herbert executed a plan of his own.
Around 1 a.m. on June 10, he drove his pickup truck to Latham Road. He threw a weight through the sliding glass doors at the back of his former home, and stormed inside.
Lock yourselves in the bedroom! Carmen ordered Hannah and Liza. They fled to a bathroom instead.
Herbert smashed the bathroom door and when Hannah tried to defend herself, he hit her face. He took Carmen to the bedroom, barricading the door with the bed and a bureau. Hannah and Liza ran outside and called 911.
Inside their old bedroom, court records show, Herbert brutalized his former wife. He smashed her head and left arm with a baseball bat. He raped her. Then he began spraying lye over her bloodied body from a squirt bottle.
Vermont State Police Trooper Hugh O'Donnell was the first to arrive on the scene.
"He's killing her," the girls yelled to O'Donnell.
O'Donnell went inside. He yelled, "State police!"
From the bedroom, Herbert told O'Donnell he was coming out. O'Donnell ordered Herbert to lie on his face with his arms stretched in front of him. As he moved to handcuff Herbert, O'Donnell saw Carmen crawling on the floor. Her skin was turning brown, her face was distorted, and she was begging for an ambulance.
As he was led away from Carmen's home in handcuffs, Herbert offered police an explanation. "I lost it," he said. "I just lost it."
As the sentencing hearing drew to a close, Herbert stood and offered an apology, who looked on from the courtroom's wooden benches.
"Hannah and Liza, I'm sorry," Herbert said. "I didn't mean for any harm to come to you. When I kicked in the door and if I hit one of you, sorry, that was not my intention. Carmen, you didn't deserve it. I can't tell you why. I'm not getting into that. But you definitely didn't deserve it, and I hope you get along."
Then Judge Mary Miles Teachout sentenced him to jail for 30 to 70 years. "She did not deserve what happened to her," Teachout declared, "but she does deserve to be satisfied with what happens in the court process."
The family retreated to private room behind the gallery. "I'll put in a good word about you," Carmen told the prosecutor, Deputy Orange County State's Attorney Robert DiBartolo. "Maybe you'll get your own firm."
As she clung to a railing and descended the courthouse steps, Carmen was greeted by a swarm of television cameras. She told the media horde she wanted to put the attack behind her.
"Now, I can start looking forward to other projects," she said, before stepping into the car.
Carmen, Joan and Kesstan were as chatty on the way home as they were quiet on the way to court.
They talked mostly about Herbert.
What did he look like? Carmen asked. "Is his hair white?" Carmen asked. "Does he have a great puffy Afro?"
"Did Hannah and Liza look at him?"
As the car headed back to Thetford, the women agreed they were most upset that Herbert had apologized to Liza and Hannah, but stopped short of saying "sorry" to his ex-wife.
It was, they said, part of a familiar pattern. No matter his other faults, Herbert had always considered himself a good stepfather. He could never acknowledge that, by hurting their mother, he hurt them.
Kesstan mocked his logic. "I'll kill your mother in front of you. ... But listen, I'd never hurt you."
As the car rattled along Route 113 toward Thetford, and her mom and sister chatted excitedly, Carmen declared herself satisfied.
"I think he was as sincere as he could be," Carmen said. "There was nothing else to say."
As she approached the two-year anniversary of the attack, Carmen Tarleton could measure progress in any number of ways. She had completed a few dozen surgeries, mostly skin grafts in which surgeons cut healthy skin from the few undamaged parts of her body and grafted it onto open wounds on her head and chest.
Her daily naps grew shorter, and she started to plan for her sister, Kesstan, to move out, leaving Carmen to care for her two teenage daughters alone.
She also started venturing out of her house more often.
On an icy, blustery evening in mid-February 2009, shortly after her ex-husband Herbert Rodgers was sentenced for attacking her with lye, blinding, sexually assaulting and almost killing her, Carmen and her mother, Joan Blandin, left Carmen's Thetford home, drove down Interstate 91 and across the Ledyard Bridge and walked into an auditorium inside Dartmouth Hall, a big white building on the campus green.
On this night, red drapes hung on the walls in the auditorium and pink throw pillows were strewn across the stage. Above the stage, a projector screen showed images of rape victims, and Web sites for various social service groups.
Carmen had arrived at The Vagina Monologues, an annual stage show designed to celebrate female empowerment and sexuality held by the Dartmouth Center for Women and Gender. The organization always donates part of the gate proceeds to local victims of domestic abuse. This year Carmen was a beneficiary.
Carmen had grown weary of being a charity case, but she had a friend who worked at Dartmouth, and felt obligated to attend. Besides, she thought the performance could make for a fun night out.
Though her attendance had not been announced in advance, Carmen was introduced to the capacity crowd of about 250 before the show began. But the moment turned awkward. The speaker had obviously prepared a few remarks about Carmen and intended to speak about her for several minutes. But Carmen, who lost one ear and had the other badly damaged in the attack, stood and waved to the crowd as soon as she heard her name, pre-empting the speaker.
But the moment was quickly forgotten.
One by one, young women took center stage and recited essays about gender and sexuality, written by other women across the world.
"Layer upon layer opening into more layers," one student said. "My vagina amazed me. It was better than the Grand Canyon."
"It was both the doorbell to my house, and the house itself," one speaker said.
Carmen and Joan giggled at such lines, but they grew somber as one speaker told of women turned into sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II. The woman, she said, would try to kill themselves by drinking chemicals, or by running headfirst into walls.
"What we became? We became ruined," one student said. "Tools. Bloody meat. What we were left with? Nothing."
"So horrible," Joan muttered to her daughter.
Microphone to Carmen
After almost two hours, a young employee from Dartmouth Center for Women and Gender strutted onto the stage, for one of the final performances. Michelle de Sousa, wore sheer black tights, black underwear, a bustier, and little else.
For more than 15 minutes, de Sousa, playing a prostitute who tended only to female clients, moaned and gyrated while re-enacting the wide-variety of orgasms she claimed to have sparked in other women.
Carmen and her mother, along with the rest of the crowd, roared with approval. When it was over, and the performers had been serenaded with applause, one of the organizers passed the microphone into the fourth row, where Carmen sat.
Carmen had not planned to say anything, but she didn't miss a beat.
"My vagina has been through a long, hard road," she told the hushed crowd. "When I was a nurse, I had to take care of a woman about 70. She was the only woman I took care of who had cancer of the vagina. I didn't know what to do for her. I did everything I could. I never forgot her ... I had two kids and my vagina really hurt, especially the second time."
"A year and a half ago, I got attacked," Carmen continued. "I have been through hell ... but my vagina didn't have cancer, and it works. I've got the luckiest vagina here."
The crowd sat quietly, every set of eyes in the auditorium fixed on Carmen. The show ended, and a few of the performers surrounded Carmen.
De Sousa walked over, and gave Carmen a bouquet of flowers.
"I've done all those moans," Carmen told her.
"I have flowers for you," de Sousa said, laughing. "You deserve them more than I do."
A few other performers approached Carmen. Some said a quick hello, others just walked past and stole a quick glance. But de Sousa lingered, unwilling to leave Carmen's side. She insisted on guiding Carmen outside, up steep, ice-covered steps to the parking lot.
De Sousa walked one step ahead of Carmen, who clung to the railing.
"You can grab onto my butt if you want," she told Carmen, laughing.
"That's OK," Carmen deadpanned.
She walked, slowly, up the stairs, and got into a car that took her home for the night.
Out of the Bubble
It was during the winter of 2009 that Carmen began to reclaim normalcy in her life.
After more than a year of mostly confining herself to her home, she began going to the grocery store and bank and running other errands. She was determined to break the protective bubble that her family had formed around her.
Before Christmas, she told her mother, Joan, who had moved into the house for several weeks after Carmen returned from the hospital, that she would like to live without her help.
And, more significantly, she decided that Kesstan, whose devoted her past two years to Carmen, should soon leave.
In months after the attack, when Carmen was in Boston hospitals, Kesstan rented an apartment in the city and visited her sister every day. They spent hours in the hospital together.
Much of the time, they laughed, often at the expense of the doctors who cared for Carmen.
During one medical appointment, a middle-aged male doctor tried to explain how Carmen's skin would heal. The burns had constricted the skin on Carmen's face, and Carmen could barely move her lips, making it a struggle to eat and muffling her voice. As he sat with Carmen and Kesstan, the doctor explained that as time went on, she would be able to move her lips more freely.
"Well then, who's going to give me kissing lessons?" Carmen asked.
"Carmen, (the doctor) is cute, maybe he will," Kesstan interjected.
The doctor, visibly uncomfortable, excused himself as the sisters laughed.
When Carmen left the hospital and returned home, Kesstan moved into Carmen's room, everything she owned in the world crammed into a few cardboard boxes on her sister's bedroom floor.
"I was in a very close orbit with Carmen," Kesstan would later say.
It was comforting and helpful, but Carmen, acting once more on her conviction that life move forward, insisted that it come to an end. She told Kesstan to be out by April.
"It was like a pile driver," Kesstan said of her sister's mandate. "It was stressing us, but that power she had served her very well."
Carmen Tarleton approached her last chance at sight, a cornea transplant on her right eye in April 2009, with a determined wariness. Six months earlier, when doctors opened her left eye to test whether a transplanted cornea there had worked, Carmen allowed herself to hope, only to be crushed to learn that the surgery had failed, and she remained blind.
Sure, the doctors had long told her that the right eye was less damaged than her left, and had always been her best shot at regaining vision. But as she waited inside the near-empty Dartmouth Coach station in Lebanon for the bus that would take her to Boston for the surgery, Carmen talked of regaining vision as most people talk of winning the lottery.
"It's nothing I'm going to be planning on," she said.
Instead, she was preoccupied with another problem -- her daughter Liza's cat. Sonny, rescued from a California shelter nine years before, was struggling to breathe and refused to come out from under Liza's bed. Carmen knew Sonny, Liza's companion for much of her young life, was dying.
"My kids have had so much loss, I didn't want her to go through it when I couldn't be there," Carmen said.
But the injuries she suffered when her ex-husband beat her and covered more than 80 percent of her body with lye in June 2007 forced Carmen away from her home, time and time again. Because the Upper Valley does not have facilities for advanced care of burn victims, Carmen had made dozens of trips to Boston hospitals during the previous two years.
It had become the stuff of numbing routine. Every couple of weeks, Carmen and at least one family member, usually her sister, Kesstan, or her mother, Joan, would drive to the Dartmouth Coach station in Lebanon early in the morning, sleep for a couple hours on the bus, catch a cab from Boston's South Station to the nearby Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and spend the day, and sometimes the evening, shuttling between appointments.
The trip on April 28, however, was far from ordinary.
Both Kesstan and Joan accompanied her for the surgery, which would keep Carmen overnight at the hospital. They stayed near the hospital at the trendy Liberty Hotel, a remodeled prison along the Charles River.
The three women dropped their bags in the room and began walking to the hospital. Carmen was thinking about food. She was forbidden to eat for hours before her procedures, so she usually gorged herself immediately after was released. It was Kesstan's job to have food ready for her.
"French fries and a chicken quesadilla," Carmen told Kesstan.
They made the short walk along the Charles River to the hospital. En route to the ninth floor, several nurses recognized Carmen and said hello.
Nurse Jody Ardizzoni ran through standard pre-operation questions.
"Nothing to eat or drink?" Ardizzoni asked.
"No, I'm starving," Carmen answered.
"No recreational drugs?"
"No, not at this time," Carmen joked.
Samir Melki, of the Boston Eye Group, is one of the few surgeons in the country who performs cornea transplants, a relatively new procedure.
Akin to the glass cover on a watch face, corneas provide the protective cover for the eye's lens. Often, patients come to Melki after domestic accidents: they are working under their cars when fluids spill onto their face, or they pour chemicals down a clogged sink and get sprayed when chemicals gurgle up. For those patients, surgeons take sections of cornea from cadavers, and sew them onto the eye.
For more severe injuries, where many parts of the eye are injured, cadaver corneas are usually rejected, so surgeons implant a synthetic cornea.
Carmen's injuries made her ineligible for a cadaver cornea. In fact, Melki said in an interview that her injuries were the worst he had ever seen. It was unusual for someone to have both their eyes damaged, he said, and it was unusual to have the damage be so severe.
About 90 percent of patients who receive a transplant regain some vision, Melki said. But with patients like Carmen, whose eyes are damaged in several places, there are fewer guarantees. The synthetic cornea could take, he warned, but others problems that doctors could not fix could doom her to blindness.
"Her injury was the most extensive," Melki said. Despite the odds, "In her case, not doing anything was damning her to bad vision, so we had to take a chance."
More than five hours after Carmen was wheeled into Melki's operating room, Kesstan and Joan waited inside their hotel room. Kesstan phoned Liza.
"Mom went into surgery a little later than they anticipated," she told the teenager.
Carmen had hoped to be out of surgery for dinner, but it was not until 2 a.m. that the hospital called Kesstan to come pick up her sister. Though delayed, the surgery had otherwise gone according to plan, and the synthetic cornea was in place. But it would need several days to settle, doctors said, and Carmen would have to wait to learn if her vision had been restored.
Alone With a Mirror
For the next week, Carmen's vision showed little improvement. Immediately after the operation, she could see her surgeon hold his fingers up, but the image was grainy and faint. In the days after she returned to Thetford, she saw only blurs and faint outlines.
After nine days, the fluids that had built up in her eye during the surgery had drained. The new cornea could finally do its job.
Kesstan stopped over that morning, carrying bags of groceries.
"Hi," Kesstan said.
"Hi," Carmen answered. Then she began walking through the kitchen quickly, without hesitation.
"You must be seeing better today," Kesstan said, tentatively.
A bag Kesstan was carrying was marked, "Please reuse this bag" and "recycle."
Carmen read the words aloud. The sisters hugged and cried and jumped up and down.
"I can see you," Carmen said. "I can see you!"
The vision that had been destroyed in a few moments of rage had returned, almost as suddenly. She would remain legally blind, but, almost two years after the attack, Carmen could see faces, and walk without grabbing hold of the nearest piece of furniture.
That day, she waited anxiously for her daughters to come home. Hannah came home from Thetford Academy in the late afternoon. In the evening, Liza came back from work at Dan & Whit's in Norwich.
Hannah, now 14, had changed the most during Carmen's two years in the dark. Carmen could see that her face had thinned dramatically; her baby fat gone. Liza, now 16, looked more familiar, but still more like a woman than the girl Carmen remembered.
It was bittersweet. Seeing her daughters reminded her of just how much she had missed.
There was one more person Carmen was eager to see that day. She grabbed hold of a hand mirror, walked into her bathroom, and sat on a closed toilet seat.
Carmen had some idea of what had awaited. She had felt her face, and knew certain parts were missing. She often asked Kesstan and her daughters what she looked like, and they had been honest.
And she had heard television reporters caution viewers that images of her were for "mature audiences only."
But as she took the hand mirror in her right hand and raised it, the face that looked back still shocked her. While details were still fuzzy, Carmen could see that her nose had been mashed, and that she was missing an ear, and that her face was ghost white and scarred with other colors.
"Oh, I'm disfigured," she said. "Oh, God." Then she began to cry.
"It was loss," Carmen would later say. "Loss of, physically, who I was."
She mourned, for a few minutes. Then, Carmen says, she accepted it.
"OK, that's the way it is," she told herself. "That's not new."
In fact, she said, she felt a stirring of joy. At last, she didn't have to wonder what the mirror held.
It was little more than a square patch of dirt in her front yard, but Carmen Tarleton could easily imagine it a thriving garden, just like the one she used to bring to life before the attack.
On a gray June morning, Carmen, her eyesight restored, walked around its perimeter, pointing to where rows of beets and lettuce and broccoli would soon spring up. The ground was sloping and bumpy and provided nothing to grab hold of, but Carmen, who weeks before couldn't walk around her kitchen without keeping one hand on the counter, circled it with ease.
The garden was neglected during the two years since a brutal attack by her ex-husband had left her disfigured and unable to see. But with the cornea transplant successful, she hoped to stir life from the soil once more.
But by late June, summer seemed to have been put on hold, and day after day of cold rain settled in. It was gray outside, and inside, Carmen had hung new curtains, which seemed to make the house darker. As the days wore on, images seemed to grow less sharp. She struggled to read words on a bag of potato chips that had been clear only weeks ago.
"Is it just dark in here?" she wondered. "Is it me?"
'It Went So Fast'
As her vision continued to deteriorate, Carmen traveled once more to Boston to meet with surgeons. They suspected scar tissue had built up around the cornea area, and told her there was a chance they could repair it.
But during the procedure, they discovered even more scar tissue that they could do nothing about.
After only a few months of vision, Carmen was blind once again. And this time, they told her, it was permanent.
The chemicals her ex-husband, Herbert Rodgers, had poured on her were still doing damage two years later. The artificial cornea had successfully attached itself to Carmen's right eye, the doctors told her, but she had lost her vision because of two other problems: her retina had partially detached; and scar tissue caused by the chemicals had built up in the back of her eye.
"I was very disappointed, but there isn't really much you can do about that," said Samir Melki, the surgeon who performed the cornea transplant. "It was not totally surprising."
More than she had during the days after the attack, or when she awoke from her coma, or when she went to court and saw her attacker, Carmen grieved. She stayed inside for weeks and cried and grew angry and felt sorry for herself. Why give her vision, only to take it away again? Hadn't she gone through enough?
"I was praying when I was blind, 'Just let me see my kids again, and I won't complain.' I got exactly what I asked for. I just thought I'd get it for a while. It went so fast. I wasn't ready for it to go like that."
It was the lowest she had been. But then, as she had through so much in the past two years, she resolved to move on. What else was there to do?
"You can't change it," she told herself, "so what are you going to do now?"
While legally blind, she is not completely in the dark. In the right setting, Carmen can see shadows and light, and rough outlines of facial features. And she has a magnifying machine that allows her to see bills, newspapers and other written material.
In early October, after several weeks of mourning her lost vision, Carmen received some positive medical news. In what would be her last operation for several months, doctors performed the final skin grafts she still needed, closing the remaining wounds on her body and removing painful scar tissue on her lips, allowing her to move her mouth more freely, and speak easier.
And she decided to get busy. She joined a committee of Thetford Academy parents to plan graduation night activities for Liza, now a senior. She got a dog, a mutt named Roxi who chews her daughters' slippers. And she arranged to return this winter to a job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She will work from home and call patients who have recently undergone surgeries at DHMC, to check on them.
Her sister, Kesstan Blandin, visits on Sundays for dinner, but has respected Carmen's request that she relinquish her role as a caregiver. She still feels protective of Carmen, Kesstan says, but the time for that is over.
"I keep it to myself now," Kesstan said. "Carmen is still Carmen, but Carmen has a strength that I don't know she had before. She has a command of her life. She has a wisdom and deep experience."
Instead of living for her sister, Kesstan spends much of her time in her apartment in Norwich, where she is finishing her dissertation and trying to figure out how much longer she will stay in the Upper Valley.
"There is something about fate reducing life to only a few choices that you realize you weren't choosing anyway," Kesstan said. "What makes a difference in life is your choice to resist it, or not."
Carmen isn't sure about fate or choices, all she knows for certain, she said, is that life pulls you forward.
"Never was there a time, from the moment I got hurt until today ... I never thought I was going to die. I knew I wasn't going to die. I don't go asking myself questions, I just do what I've got to do and move on."