Written by S. Bowyer

 

    Monkey parenting has become more popular of late, families adopting primates and raising them as long-term children. Sometimes there is rivalry between human and non-human family counterparts, but none as extreme as the case of Charla Nash. In the book, The Woman Who Lost Her Face, Charla Nash and NBC news reporters retrace the steps of her miraculous journey before and after being attacked by Travis, the human-raised chimpanzee.

 

TRAVIS AND THE HEROLD FAMILY 

    Sandra Herold got her monkey child, Travis, in 1995, at the age of three weeks old. Travis used the family toilet, could dress himself, and even brush his teeth. He was included in all the family routines including eating at the dining table, sleeping in his mother's bed, watching TV and using the family computer. In most definitions, he was raised as a human child. There are even pictures of Travis dressed for halloween, holding a friend's baby in his lap, and walking the family dog.

     When Travis was 5, Sandra lost her only human child in a car accident. Travis the chimpanzee then became the only thing that was important to her.

     When Travis was young, he met Brianna, the daughter of Charla Nash. It was a friendship that was built on fun and play. Sandra had known Charla since the 1970s, during her involvement in a traveling rodeo. They were very close, despite a 15 year age difference, and had even spent time living on the same property when Charla needed a more stable home and had struggled financially as a single mother.

     Life seemed pretty grand, until signs of Travis's dominance began to surface. When Travis was 9, Sandra's husband, Jerry, died of lung cancer, but before his death, he asked Charla to get Travis into a sancturary. He believed it would be too much for Sandra to care for Travis alone, but Sandra refused the suggestion.

     Once Jerry passed, Sandra and Travis grew closer, some saying they were like a married couple. They rarely left the house, they would take baths together, and would brush each other's hair. Sandra began to spoil her chimp, buying him steak, lobster, ice-cream and apple pie, Travis was soon 70 pounds overweight.

 

Travis, at home

Travis at home

     As Sandra found life harder to handle, she called on Charla to help keep the business going and assist her where Jerry used to. At times the women had arguments about Charla not paying rent, showing that Sandra might have been struggling financially.

 

THE ATTACK OF CHARLA NASH

     In February 2009, Travis was very agitated one morning and nothing seemed to calm him. He stole the house keys, unlocked the door, and escaped outside in the backyard. Sandra, now 70, could not keep up with him so called on Charla to help.

     Charla arrived not long after, an Elmo doll in hard to get the chimpanzee's attention. However, something was wrong. Instead of a pleasant greeting, Travis went into a rage and attacked Charla, tearing and chewing her face and hands to pieces. Sandra quickly tried to aid her friend, beating Travis with a shovel. He continued to ravage Charla, while Sandra grabbed a knife and stabbed her chimp several times, deeply. He stopped for a moment, to look back at Sandra, who was afraid she was his next victim. She raced to sit in her car to call 911, the doors locked to protect herself.

     EMS and Firefighters arrived, but as Travis was still not contained, had to wait for police to arrive. When they did arrive, their car was attacked, Travis ripping off the side mirror and trying to break a window. He found an unlocked door and opened it, coming face-to-face, blood-covered, with Officer Frank Chiafari. Chiafari shot Travis four times, but Travis was still standing. The chimpanzee fled, and was found dead later, in his caged enclosure in the Herold house.

     “We’ve responded to many, many homicide scenes over the years— shootings, stabbings, bludgeoning type of things. But this was a very, very brutal scene with a tremendous amount of blood strewn about— one of the more brutal types of scenes we’ve encountered,” said Captain Conklin of Stamford Police.

 

THE PROGNOSIS?

     One might believe that this was where the horror stopped, however, Charla Nash's journey had only just begun. She was rushed to hospital, where emergency staff were troubled by her appearance.

     “As soon as I unwrapped the face, you could have heard a pin drop in there. She had no recognizable features. It was like nothing I had ever seen, and nothing anybody in the emergency room had ever seen," says treating surgeon, Dr. Kevin Miller.

     “We started removing impacted chimpanzee teeth, which were impacted in her bone, in her face,” he said. “We thought they were her teeth. It actually turned out when pathology came back that they were the chimpanzee’s teeth, which makes you assume that he had to have been biting down on there— which just must have been horrific.”

     Surgeons spent hours trying to salvage what they could of Charla's face and amputating her hands, which were beyond repair. Dr. Miller instead called colleagues to discuss face and hand transplants. Only one near-complete face transplant had been successful before this time, and Dr. Miller wished to try with Charla. It seemed wrong that she would have to spend the rest of her life with her face covered. As it was noticed later, Brianna seemed less able to bond with her mother after her disfigurement.

 

 

     The community questioned what had caused the attack. Travis had been known to be naughty at times, but never so brutal. Jeff Rossen of NBC visited the Herold household the next day, hoping to get an interview. While Sandra was sending away a lot of media, she chosen Rossen and invited him into her home. She showed him pictures of Travis's childhood, and spoke of his antics and playfulness, including the few times he'd stolen the family car, but was caught before he hit the main road. He was also shown the food collection for Travis, including cookies, candy, snack cakes, and bananas. She even gave him glasses of wine, but stated it had to be in a stemmed wine glass, as if it was a plastic replica, he would hand it back without drinking it. And if she attempted to dress Travis is clothes he didn't like, he'd hand them back.

     When asked of the day of the attack, Herold stated that he'd seemed very agitated and had attempted to medicate him minutes before Nash's arrival. She had slipped some Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, into his cup of tea.

     Jeff Rossen reminisces in The Woman Who Lost Her Face, "She clearly regretted telling us about the Xanax on camera, but there were no restrictions on the interview. The Associated Press and many newspapers and TV stations picked up on the Xanax angle— and Sandra tried to backpedal. But we had it on tape. There was no way out of this. A few months later toxicology tests confirmed Travis was given Xanax. Sandra was never charged with a crime, and never gave another interview."

 

CHARLA'S NEW FACE

     After the attack and Charla's health being stabilised, everyone wanted to talk to her. They were interested in doctor's goals to give her a new face via transplant and replace her hands. Before this, only one other person had ever had a face transplant so doing both at once would be the ultimate challenge for any medical team. On first attempt, the new hands began to have complications and had to be removed. Despite disappointment, it had to be done, medical staff undoing hours of work in the operating room. However, her face transplant was a success, and was finished off with glass eyes.

     Below we see a news anchorwoman covering the operation, including early pictures of her new face.

 

 

CHARLA'S LIFE AFTER SURGERY

     Since the surgery, Charla's life has remained semi-dependent, not having hands or eyesight to feed or care for herself. Family and workers continue to assist her in daily tasks, however, she feels better about the incident and her new looks.

     Stephanie Siegel, of the Today Show, remembers, "The last time I saw Charla she had just gotten new prosthetic eyes. They really make a huge difference aesthetically, and give her even more of an ability to both interact with people and blend into crowds, two things she would never consider doing before."

 

 

     Press member, Gretchen Eisele, states, "There are so many heroes in Charla’s story: The EMS team who rushed her to the hospital, the doctors who saved her life and the ones who gave her a new face; the nurses and therapists who helped teach Charla how to live again; Charla’s brothers, who rarely left her side and helped manage her affairs; and Briana, just a teenager when the attack happened, poised beyond her years, who helps her mom stay focused on the future, not the past. And the greatest hero of them all— Charla, herself."

     Kimberly Ferdinando of Peacock Productions reflects, "My experience with Charla was transformative. She is an exceptional human being with an unwavering will to live. Despite facing medical misfortunes that seem like the stuff of science fiction or a horror film, Charla soldiers on. She likes to laugh. She loves her daughter. She has bad days. She is a person, and she has always been a person underneath the faces she’s been forced to wear."

     Charla's attitude has transformed during the process. She is a kind, welcoming woman, who is ready to tackle whatever she must, despite early days after the accident, where she would refuse to get dressed, talk or interact with others on occassions. Since her physical progression towards "normalcy", she has gained confidence to go on outings, dress to blend into crowds, and share her personality and lessons with others. She is forward in sharing her story when asked.

 

 

     The Woman Who Lost Her Face by NBC News further describes the journey of Charla, her medical team and her family, including interviews with those who helped share her story with the world. The book is available at many good book stores including Amazon, in print and digital format. 

 

See also: Parents of Primates: Darlings or Dangers?

 

 

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