When Charla Nash responded to a call from her friend Sandra Herold in February 2009, she had no idea that her life would change forever. Herold needed help getting her chimpanzee, Travis, into the house. Travis was familiar to Nash, so she didn’t expect the chimp to inflict life-changing injuries on her.
Herold, a 70-year-old woman, tried to stop Travis by hitting him on the head with a shovel and stabbing him with a butcher knife. She only succeeded in making Travis angrier. Sandra called 911, saying:
“He’s killing my friend. My chimpanzee! He ripped her apart. Shoot him, Shoot him! He’s killing my girlfriend.”
Charla is doing well following her face transplant surgery
“I’ve been doing this a long time and have never seen anything this dramatic on a living patient,” Capt. Bill Ackley of Stamford Emergency Medical Service told The New York Times.
Following the attack, four teams of surgeons in Stamford, Connecticut, performed extensive surgery on Charla’s face and hands. A spokesman for the hospital said Nash had made good progress considering the surgeries she’d undergone within 72 hours.
The spokesperson said Charla’s family was considering a face transplant. Surgeons had reattached her jaw, but Charla looked unrecognizable. In May 2016, Stephanie Siegel wrote on TODAY:
“I had seen the photos of her face or what was left of it post attack, but nothing quite prepares you for what you see and feel in person. As I approached her bedside, a wave of fear spread throughout my body. But that all melted away once we started to speak.”
Siegel was stunned by Charla’s positivity, despite the attack victim having no eyes, hands, nose, and most of her face. In 2011, Nash received face and hand transplants at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Unfortunately, Nash developed pneumonia and kidney failure, hampering circulation to the hands. It forced doctors to remove the hands, but they remained viable for another suitable donor.
The simultaneous face and hand surgery had only been performed once before, and the patient later died. Thankfully, Charla survived the procedure. The surgery allowed Nash to become more independent as she could now feed herself. Charla told TODAY that increased dependence on people had affected her:
“Every day I build up a little more strength and try to get a little more aggressive with things I want to do. I was such an independent person (before the attack), and to have to rely on people to do every little thing for me has been a challenge.”
Dr. Bohdan Pomahac said the surgery had restored Charla’s vital functions, ‘including the ability to breathe through her nose, smell, and eat without drooling.’
Nash’s psychological recovery was aided by her lack of memory of the attack
TODAY reported that Nash spends her time listening to radio and audiobooks. “I think if I just had my eyes, I’d be able to do 10 times more because right now I’m in the dark,” Charla said.
Nash has aides who prepare her food, which she consumes using a prosthetic hand. She raised money for the hand through a GoFundMe account set up by her friend. Charla got $4 million from Herold’s estate, but most of it settled her legal and medical bills. Carla said:
“I can feed myself, but then again, the food has to be cut in front of me. I have numerous medical bills to pay back, so on weekends I have no assistance here at home, but there is stuff in the refrigerator where I can open the plastic container and feed myself.”
Charla doesn’t remember the attack, which has aided her psychological recovery. She said:
“I’m told that it could stay hidden for years, and it could possibly hit me and cause me nightmares and such. In the case that it does, I can reach out for psychological help, but knock on wood, I don’t have any nightmares or remembrance.”
Her ability to do most things independently has also aided her recovery. Stephanie Siegel wrote Nash had learned to text using one thumb. Siegel said Nash’s selfless nature is inspiring as, despite her struggles, she often checks on Stephanie and her kids. Siegel wrote:
“She’s taught me to have more compassion, more strength in adverse times, and also the cliché to not sweat the small stuff. Seeing what she experiences daily just to live and survive — the rest of us have no cause for complaint.”
“I would say that if anyone gets in this situation, don’t think about the past and what has happened,” Charla said. “Think about what you’re going to be, going forward, and what you want to do next. Never give up.”
Charla is honored to be helping the military learn more about face transplants
The Department of Defense paid for Charla’s surgery, hoping to learn more about face and hand transplants. Most injuries suffered during war affect the face and extremities. The Pentagon offers grants to various medical facilities through its hand and face transplantation program.
Nash was more than willing to participate in experimental treatments that could assist wounded veterans. Her father was an Air Force veteran. She told TODAY:
“I think my first reaction was that’s great, I can contribute, I can do something. It’s not like I’m just sitting like a dead log in the water. I can really give something back.”
In 2016, specialists tried to wean Charla off the anti-rejection drugs she’d taken since the surgery. The specialists found that Carla’s body started rejecting the transplant after she stopped taking the drugs.
“I gave it my all and know my participation in the study will still be beneficial. I’d do it all over again, if I could. The men and women serving our country are the true heroes. I’m just happy I had the chance to help. I wish I could have done more. I believe in the power of prayer and appreciate everyone who is praying for me.”
Nash’s injuries were so extensive that the hospital staff needed therapy to cope
Scott Orstad, a spokesperson for the Stamford Hospital, told The New York Times that Nash’s injuries were so extensive and horrific that the hospital staff needed therapy to cope. Orstad said:
“Members of the staff have said this is something they’ve never experienced in their career. This is definitely the most unique case the hospital has seen in quite some time.”
The community couldn’t understand how a docile and loveable chimp like Travis had assaulted Nash to within inches of her life. A 2003 incident involving Travis had prompted changes in Connecticut law requiring primates weighing more than 50 pounds to be registered with the state.
In 2003, Travis had escaped from a car and held up traffic for several hours – a minor incident compared to the horrors he perpetrated six years later.
Travis seemed agitated on the day of the assault, so Herold gave him tea with Xanax to calm him down. The chimp was also taking medication for Lyme disease, a condition that sometimes causes psychosis and severe anxiety.
The New York Times reported that chimps start acting aggressively towards their owners when they reach adulthood. According to experts, such chimps can’t be reintroduced to the world as other chimps will reject them.
After police responded to Herold’s call, Travis escaped into the woods as paramedics attended to Nash. Travis returned after a while and started attacking the officers.
The super-strong chimp knocked the mirror off the passenger side of a police cruiser and tried to open the locked door. Travis ran to the other side and found that door was unlocked.
Inside the vehicle was Frank Chiafari, a police officer who’d played with Travis as the chimp grew up. Trapped by the aggressive animal, Chiafari had no choice but to fire four fatal gunshots in close proximity. Chiafari told The New York Times:
“Travis gave me a split second to react. He shows his teeth, a snarl, and I see blood. I see his fangs. I just start to shoot. When I [first] saw him, he was small and cute and friendly – he’d wave at you. Who would have ever thought when we were playing together, we’d have this incident 15 years later?”