CLEVELAND - In 2004, when Thomas Culp shot his wife, Connie, in the face and then turned the gun on himself, somewhere in that moment of insanity he probably thought it was the end for them both.
He survived and went to prison. She started down a difficult road that would ultimately lead her to receive the nation's first near-total face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic.
The blast from that shotgun destroyed most of Connie's face: nose, upper lip, teeth, palate, cheeks and most of her eyesight. She now has a prosthetic eye and severely restricted vision in her other eye.
Multiple procedures to try to put her face back together were not working. Connie couldn't taste or smell. She was breathing through a tube in her neck. She couldn't eat solid food. Culp remembers calling her doctor two weeks before the transplant took place and said, "We have to do something because it feels like my face is falling off."
What a team of Cleveland Clinic surgeons did in a 22-hour procedure in late 2008 was restore 80 percent of Connie's face. It was the most complex procedure of its kind ever performed.
Dr. Maria Siemionow, Director of Plastic Surgery Research and Professor of Surgery, led the surgical team. Four and a half years later, Siemionow describes Culp as a hero.
“She has definitely exceeded what I thought would be possible, and I wish all face transplant patients worldwide would be doing so well,” Siemionow said.
Culp, now 50, is regaining a sense of smell and taste, and can now eat anything she likes. There is also good nerve regeneration in her face. Additional surgery removed excess skin around the transplant and constant therapy has brought back her smile. She said her face now "feels so soft," and completely like her own.
But it is what happened to her inside that has been a critical component of her recovery. Culp had some contact with her now ex-husband during his incarceration. At one point, she considered taking him back. A comment from her daughter, who was in a difficult relationship of her own, got Connie's attention.
"She said, ‘Look what example you're setting for me. You're going back to a guy who blew your head off,’" Culp said. "I said, ‘Wow, I can't believe she just said that.’" Culp calls the moment her "rude awakening."
Connie eventually divorced Thomas Culp. She admits, in spite of what he did to her, it was a hard thing for her to do. When asked if she had forgiven him for the shooting, she said "I forgave him when it first happened."
These days, Connie still has monthly visits to Cleveland from her home near Steubenville. She enjoys running with her dog, and seeing her family and grandchild. Connie met the family of the Lakewood woman who was her organ donor, and is now a powerful advocate for organ donation.
Connie Culp has a very honest perspective on what happened to her in 2004, and how much everything has changed since then.
"I'm a lot stronger now, stronger in my belief in myself. I needed that awakening to realize that I am a good person and didn't deserve a lot of things that happened."
And she still believes that life is basically good.
"Life is not that bad. You can change anything around. You just have to turn your head and look to the good. There's good in everything, if you think about it."
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A woman was found dead inside a car around 2 a.m Friday morning in the 1200 block of West 25th Street.