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The courage to live - and to see

2 years after an attack left her scarred and blind, a mother presses on

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / June 14, 2009
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THETFORD, Vt. - The last thing she saw was the figure, garbed in black, standing in her daughter's bedroom holding a baseball bat.

As she screamed for her girls to lock themselves in another room, the man brought the bat crashing down, fracturing her skull. Then he pointed the tip of a squeeze bottle at her. He squirted and squirted, and when he was done, Carmen Tarleton's body had been doused with lye. Her arms and legs, her neck and back, her ears and eyes. Virtually no part had been spared.

When a police officer arrived, Tarleton crawled toward him as her skin turned brown.

"He poured acid on me," she cried while the officer handcuffed her assailant, her estranged husband, Herbert Rodgers, who had plotted the June 10, 2007, attack after learning that Tarleton was seeing another man.

Doctors gave Tarleton slim chances of survival. They induced a coma, and for three months, Tarleton lay unconscious in the burn unit of Brigham and Women's Hospital. Efforts to rouse her failed, until Sept. 23, when she awakened, alert and anxious that she had missed her girls' birthdays. She was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. By November 2007, she was given clearance to return to Vermont. There, under the vigilant watch of her mother and sister, she regained the strength to walk and to accept the new landscape of her body - a tangle of wounds whose lone mercy was their progression into welt-like but contained scars.

Still, her eyes, once chestnut-colored and almond-shaped, were deadened, blanched a silvery blue by the lye and sewn shut by doctors because her eyelids had been singed away. Doctors said there was a remote chance of repair, but if anyone could do it, Boston eye surgeon Samir Melki could. Success, however, was far from guaranteed. She was better off, doctors told her, preparing for a life of blindness.

And that, Tarleton told a judge at the February 2009 sentencing hearing of her former husband, was the cruelest part of the attack. Without her eyesight, she could not watch her girls, Liza and Hannah, grow into young women.

In a photograph taken with her brother two weeks before the attack, Tarleton's head is cocked. She flashes a plucky smile, and wispy bangs dangle above her eyes. Worries seem far from the 39-year-old nurse.

Tarleton says she was always a mellow, if determined, personality. A shy shadow-dweller at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire, she found her calling working at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She married and had two daughters. When the marriage ended, she moved to California with her girls in 1996. She worked at UCLA Medical Center, and there, met Rodgers, a medical supply salesman.

The two married in 2001 and moved to Vermont in 2006. Rodgers stayed home and cared for Tarleton's daughters while she resumed work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, according to police accounts. He grew lonely and felt isolated, and he began surfing pornographic websites, which strained the marriage, he told police. The two separated, and he began hearing voices that told him the split of the assets had not been fair and that "she needed to pay." He also was troubled by Tarleton's new relationship, according to the records.

Rodgers said it "just came to me" to use "heavy duty drain cleaner" as a weapon, he told police. He asked God to tell him what to do by his birthday, June 9, according to police reports. When God did not respond, he decided to carry out his plan. At Home Depot, he bought Instant Power Sewer Line Root Destroyer, which he poured into Ajax dish soap bottles "so it would be easy to aim," he told police

On June 10, at 1 a.m., he parked his GMC Sierra pickup truck a quarter of a mile from Tarleton's house, walked down the dark road, ascended the back porch, and threw a 25-pound dumbbell through a sliding glass door, according to police reports. "I guess you can say that's when I tortured her," he told police. Police arrived at the house and found Tarleton's daughters - Liza, then 14, and Hannah, then 12 - outside, one gripping a kitchen knife and a telephone and both screaming, "He's killing her."

Inside, Tarleton's skin was deteriorating and her face was losing its shape, according to police reports. She was transported to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and from there, to the Brigham, where doctors described her burns as "so consistent over her entire body that it looks like someone simply 'painted' her body" with lye.

Two years later, Tarleton won't discuss the attack. She says she needs to move beyond it. But she remembers it, and when she awoke from the coma, memories of the terrible night overwhelmed her. She underwent multiple surgeries - ultimately, more than four dozen. Hearing in her left ear was gone. Her right hand tingled because of nerve damage. Her skin was a patchwork of open wounds, skin grafts, and emerging scar tissue. Her eyes, doctors told her, couldn't be considered for treatment for months.

But she had her girls. And when the time came to leave Boston, she returned with them to the house where the attack occurred, the white ranch with black shutters in Thetford, close to her family and friends. It was home, she says.

"It might have been easier to close the doors and windows and be a hermit, and I did that sometimes," she said. "But I also did what I needed to do."

So she was there, in a high-ceilinged courtroom of the Orange County Courthouse in Vermont, to hear Judge Mary Miles Teachout sentence the 53-year-old Rodgers to a 30- to 70-year prison term after he'd pleaded guilty to a charge of maiming.

"I could hear the chains, so I knew he was coming toward me. I wasn't scared. But it was strange, knowing he was in the room," she said. "And then, when he spoke, it was insignificant. He apologized to my girls but not to me."

Afterward, Tarleton said her healing sped up, as though a balm had been applied.

"I had been waiting for that day so I could move on," she said.

In some ways, the devil of delay was the hardest thing.

From the time Tarleton had been admitted to the Brigham, Dr. Melki, of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Boston Eye Group, had been visiting her. Her once 20/20 vision had been reduced to nothing. Almost every part of her eyes - the eyelids, the corneas, the retinas, the lenses - had suffered massive damage.

"It was one of the most horrific situations I've been faced with," Melki said. Still, he wondered. There was a procedure, an artificial cornea transplant that attached a plastic, collar button-shaped device that replicated a cornea. If it worked, it could restore some of her vision. But so much would have to go right. Her eye pressure would have to remain stable. Her tear glands would have to resume output. Her eyelids would have to be reconstructed. The swelling and inflammation would have to diminish.

Melki told Tarleton she would have to wait six months, if not longer, before he could attempt it. "I cried," Tarleton said. "He was going to give me something I really wanted. But I had to wait, and that was so hard."

In Vermont, Tarleton learned to walk with a cane, to cook by feeling for textured stickers attached to knobs and buttons on kitchen appliances. Blindness kept her from taking walks in the woods, the sort she used to take when she needed to blow off steam. Instead, she began therapy. She relied on her mother and sister for navigating supermarket aisles and post office counters.

At a checkup in July 2008, Melki observed that her eyes' swelling had lessened, and her eye muscle tone had returned, allowing her to blink. He told Tarleton he was prepared to attempt a cornea transplant in her left eye. Tarleton was ecstatic.

"I was trapped in my world," Tarleton recounted, "and I so wanted a way out."

But results were dismal. Tarleton could see only shadows, wisps, and hints of objects and people. Melki said that sometimes, with time, vision improved. Tarleton's did not. Nine months passed, and in April, Tarleton paid another visit to Melki in Boston. This time, he said the right eye was ready. This time, Tarleton expected little.

On April 28, Melki performed the 90-minute procedure. The next day when he removed the bandages, Tarleton could see outlines of his fingers, but no more. A week passed. No change. She resigned herself to the reality that her right eye was like the left.

"She had lowered her expectations," Melki said. "I was more frustrated than her."

Then, on the afternoon of May 7, when she was home alone, she yawned - a great heave of a yawn that forced tears from her eye. Tarleton dabbed at the liquid, and before her, her kitchen counters, her coffee table, her bookshelves came into focus.

"I thought: 'This can't be,"' Tarleton said.

When her youngest daughter came home from track practice, she called to her.

"Hannah, come into the kitchen. I think I can see you better!"

As the 14-year-old rounded a corner, Tarleton glimpsed the face she hadn't seen in two years. It was no longer the round face of a 12-year-old; it had the chiseled angles of a young woman.

"I knew she was beautiful," Tarleton said. "Now I could see it."

Later that night, in private, Tarleton slipped into a room and looked in the mirror.

"The first word that came to mind was 'disfigured,' " she said. "I know now that my blindness was a blessing, because I am not sure I could have dealt with this like I am now."

Today, Tarleton's vision is about 20/200, meaning she can see the large E on a vision chart. She can read with the help of a magnifying machine, and she can pay her bills and clean her kitchen. Tarleton says she has more skin grafts to go; she might have surgery to free her neck of scar tissue that restricts its movement. But cosmetic procedures are not planned.

"I look the way I look," she says. "It's not like certain things they do will make me look that different."

People do stare, she said, especially children who don't know better. When they do, she reminds herself of a decision she made. "I am not going to let this run my life. I'm going to work through it, and it's going to be OK," she said.

She then excused herself from the interview.

She needed to call her daughter's school. There was a field trip planned. And they needed her permission.

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