It’s been nearly two years since Connie Culp underwent the world’s first near total face transplant — and in that time, she has made incredible strides.

When Culp made her first public appearance in May 2009, her face was bloated and squarish, her speech was hard to understand, and her skin drooped in big folds. But thanks to the skilled hands of surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic, who performed the initial surgery, she is ready to face the world again with her head held high.

“When you look back, I’ve come a long way,” Culp said.

SLIDESHOW: Connie Before & After

VIDEO: Connie's Journey

The Ohio woman’s nightmare began in 2004 when her husband shot her in the face leaving a devastating hole where the middle of her face had been. The blast left her with no nose, upper jaw, and nearly left her blind as well.

Now, the proud grandmother is recovering from her final facial surgery, in which doctors removed the extra skin around her jaw line.

“As we planned, we have removed this extra skin, and essentially she received a face lift, and that really changed that extra skin look into a normal looking face,” said Dr. Maria Siemionow, who led the team of surgeons in December 2008, during the 22-hour procedure that replaced 80 percent of Culp's face

“I think she really is doing very well and has recovered her facial nerve function and her sensory nerve function so she can feel very well when her grandson kisses her on the cheek,” Siemionow said.

Over the past several months, Culp has regained sensation in her face as her nerves continue to regenerate. She can now smile and speak more clearly.

“It feels great to go out and not have people gawk at me because I look strange, but it’s OK for people to go out that look different,” Culp said. “Don’t let nobody bring you down because you don’t look the same as somebody else.”

The first face transplant was performed in France in 2005 on Isabelle Dinoire, a woman who had been mauled by her dog. Since then, about a dozen more have been done worldwide, including Culp’s, and one in April 2009. In that case, doctors at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston performed the nation's second face transplant on a man who was disfigured in a freak accident.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.