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Woman mauled by chimp awaits face transplant

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Connecticut woman mauled and heavily disfigured by a chimpanzee two years ago can't see, touch or smell and struggles to eat through a straw. She's eagerly awaiting a donor who would enable her to undergo face and hand transplant surgery.

Charla Nash, who's at a rehabilitation center near Boston, last month was deemed eligible for the surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston after passing numerous pre-operative tests and evaluations. The hospital, which performed the nation's first full face transplant earlier this month on a Texas construction worker injured in a power line accident, is working with the New England Organ Bank to find donors who match Nash's tissue requirements.

"She keeps her spirits up," one of her attorneys, Charles Willinger, said Wednesday. "She's just remarkable. Every day is a challenge for her."

The 200-pound pet chimpanzee, named Travis, went berserk in February 2009 after its owner asked Nash to help lure it back into her house in Stamford, one of the state's biggest cities. It ripped off Nash's hands, nose, lips and eyelids.

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The Department of Defense would pay for the surgery through a contract it gave the hospital in 2009 to cover the cost of face transplants for veterans and some civilians, hospital officials said. Depending on donors, the hospital could wind up performing the first simultaneous hand and face transplant in the country.

The simultaneous surgery has been done only once before, in France in 2009, and that patient later died. Plastic surgeon Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, who will lead the team and performed the earlier face transplant, said he has a larger team and designed the operation differently.

"We feel that it's a perfectly feasible operation," Pomahac told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I feel comfortable and confident that we can certainly perform it."

The donor can be as much as 20 years younger or up to 10 years older than the recipient and must have the same blood type and similar skin color and texture. Time is of the essence when recovering facial tissue from a donor, so the donor must be located within a four-hour travel radius of Brigham and Women's Hospital, hospital officials said.

The Cleveland Clinic, which in 2008 performed the nation's first partial face transplant but has not done hand transplants, said last year that Nash, 57, would not be a candidate for a face and hand transplant, citing the complexity of her injuries.

The surgery will "profoundly" change Nash's life, restoring her sense of smell and touch, making it easier for her to eat and allowing her more independence, Pomahac said, adding that Nash is excited about it.

"She's doing very well, psychologically amazingly well considering the gravity of her injuries," Pomahac said. "I think she's greatly hopeful that this will come one day and will improve her life. We can give her some sort of hope in a life that has been otherwise very dark for the past couple of years for her."

Nash, whose face was damaged beyond recognition, wears a straw hat with a veil that hangs over the front and covers some of her injuries. She spends her time talking on the phone with her daughter, who is in college, and taking walks with her brother, family spokesman John Orr said. She gets excited when occasionally she can taste food, such as a soda recently, he said.

The surgery will enable Nash, of Stamford, to go out in public more, Orr said, recalling how she decided not to attend her daughter's high school graduation because she didn't want to take attention from the students.

Nash's family is suing the estate of the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold, for $50 million and wants to sue the state for $150 million, saying state officials failed to prevent the attack. Herold, who had a tow truck business, died last year of an aneurysm.

The lawsuit against Herold's estate is scheduled for a trial in December, but both sides hinted that a settlement was possible. Willinger, Nash's attorney, estimated the estate has $4 million to $5 million in assets.

Attorneys for Nash's family in 2009 filed a claim with the state Office of Claims Commissioner asking for permission to sue the state. A Department of Environmental Protection biologist warned state officials before the attack that the chimp, which was large and strong, could seriously hurt someone if it felt threatened.

The office of then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has since been elected to the U.S. Senate, wrote a letter last June recommending the claims commissioner deny permission to sue the state. Under the law, the DEP's authority to remove the chimp was unclear, the letter said.

"This tragedy led to heartbreaking and enduring pain and injury, and to renewed efforts to strengthen appropriate laws," the letter stated, adding that taxpayers should not have to pay for injuries they did not cause.

Without its consent, the state cannot be held liable in a legal action for any damage or injury it may cause.

Nash's attorneys said the recommended denial was no surprise. They said if the commission denies their claim after a hearing planned later this year, they would appeal to the legislature.

"If there was ever a case that cries out for justice and equity, this is the one," Willinger said.

The chimp was shot and killed by police, and tests showed it had the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in its system. The chimp also had escaped from its owner's car in 2003 and led police on a chase for hours in downtown Stamford, but no one was injured.

The chimp was "always a problem," said Orr, the Nash family spokesman.

"Everybody pointed it out," Orr said. "This was truly an accident waiting to happen and everybody knew it."