BOSTON – Steve Nash described his sister’s new face as “simply beautiful.”
He was talking about his younger sister, Charla Nash, who was viciously mauled two years ago in Connecticut by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. The attack left Nash blinded, without hands, a nose, lips and eyelids.
“Two years, three months and 225 days have passed since Charla was viciously attacked,” Nash said at press conference in Boston, Friday. “Our family is deeply indebted to all who have gotten her to this day… we thank the donor and her family for giving Charla a new face and hands, and we mourn the loss of your loved one and share your sadness. Your incredible gift to Charla is generous and kind, and we thank you for your precious gift.”
It took a huge support system and many medical specialists to get her to this pivotal point – including the large surgical team at Brigham and Women's Hospital – who performed the 20-hour marathon surgery to give Nash a new face late last month.
The 30-member team, led by Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, also performed a double-hand transplant on Nash, but the hands failed to thrive and were removed.
“A few days post op, she developed pneumonia and the blood flow to hands were compromised,” Pomahac said during the press conference.
Still, Pomahac said he considers the surgery a great success because “ultimately it’s going to turn into a very functional face.”
“There should be an excellent return of motor function; she should be able to eat, smell, show emotion, all the basic functions. It’s very positive.”
The donor's identity has been kept secret, but it was a "fairly consistent match" for Nash, Pomahac said.
“Based on several criteria including tissue match, in addition to appropriate age, similar skin color, and was similar size for the hand and face – it was a very close match,” Pomahac said.
“This surgery was a combination of previous operations that we have done. She now has a palette and teeth and will now be able to eat a hamburger, which is important to her because she’s only been able to eat purified food.”
And eating “real” food is one of the things Nash is really looking forward to, according to her brother.
“We have a hot dog stand in Poughkeepsie she wants to go to and a favorite pizza place… those are foremost on her mind… eating decently and eating a meal is very key,” Steve Nash said.
As far as her recovery, Pomahac – who described Nash as a courageous and strong woman who inspired his team – said she’s making progress every day.
“The face is perfectly alive and the nerves are already starting to re-grow,” he said. “In the next three months, there will be gradual return of sensation… and in six to nine months motor function will return, so Charla should be able to smile, control her lips, and her speech will be a lot clearer as well as her ability to eat. All of these things will gradually improve.”
It will be several months before Nash’s face will be revealed to the public, but for now, Steve Nash and his family are just grateful.
“It’s outstanding and amazing to see… it’s like perfect… the functioning of the face is really going to add to the quality of her life,” he said with emotion.
In an exclusive interview, Charla Nash’s daughter Briana told The Today Show’s Ann Curry that “she looks just like everyone else.”
“You’d never believe something like that could be done,” she said. “I’m just so excited for her to learn to use it and let it become part of her life.”
About a dozen face transplants have been done worldwide; in the U.S., France, Spain and China.
There have been two others performed at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dallas Wiens was the nation's first face transplant patient there in March.
The 25-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, man received a new nose, lips, skin, muscle and nerves from an unidentified dead person in an operation paid for by the U.S. military, which wants to use what is learned to help soldiers with severe facial wounds.
Wiens' features were all but burned away, and he was left blind after hitting a power line while painting a church in November 2008.
Mitch Hunter, a 30-year-old Indiana man, received the surgery in April.
Hunter's face was severely disfigured and burned during a car accident that toppled high-voltage electrical wires. He also lost his left leg below the knee and two fingers.
The simultaneous face and hands surgery has been done only once before, in France in 2009, and that patient later died.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.