A little more than five years ago, Connie Culp had no idea she would make history. She was a beautiful young woman who owned a paint company and a bar with her husband. But in 2004, her already abusive relationship took a devastating turn. With one gunshot, she lost her nose, cheeks, mouth and right eye.
For five years, Connie lived without a face. Then, in December 2008, she received the the most extensive face transplant ever performed.
Connie met Tom Culp when she was 15, and she ran away with him a year later. "My relationship with Tom wasn't any different than living with my dad. He told me what do to, and I did it. He teased me and called me names. My dad did the same thing, so I just thought it was a normal way of life," she says.
After years of being victimized, Connie started to stand up for herself. "He would push me and people would see it, and I would get up and I'd say, 'I'm a good person, and I don't deserve that,'" she says. "He wasn't used to me talking back."
On September 21, 2004, Tom shot Connie in a fit of rage. He then turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the side of his face. He survived the blast.
After suffering a near-fatal blow, Connie managed to walk downstairs and find her twin sister, Bonnie, who called Connie's daughter, Alicia. "She said, 'He shot her.' I immediately knew that she must have meant my dad shot my mom. I wasn't really even surprised," Alicia says. "I always knew that he could really hurt somebody. I knew he had a potential. I just didn't think it would be my mom."
When Connie was first shot, she says she didn't know how extensive the injuries were. "You're actually in shock [when you get shot], and you don't feel anything, " she says. "I could feel the blood and all that, but your adrenaline's going so fast that there was no pain."
The shooting literally took off Connie's face. "I lost my sense of smell. I lost my eye, my nose. My jaw they had to wire shut. I didn't lose any teeth during the shooting, but the top of my mouth deteriorated, so I lost my whole top mouth," Connie says. "I could feel my face just sliding down."
Tom was convicted of attempted aggravated murder and sentenced to seven years in prison. He's scheduled for release in 2011.
Over the next five years, Connie endured 30 surgeries as doctors attempted to reconstruct her face.
Even after all the work she'd had done, Connie still couldn't smell, eat solid foods or breathe on her own. If she was going to get her life back, she needed something groundbreaking, which is exactly what she got.
Even after the incident, Connie never dreamed she would get a face transplant. "I just assumed I was going to walk around with a hole in my face for the rest of my life," she says.
Eighty percent of Connie's new face comes from an anonymous donor. She is legally blind, but says she make out shadows. Despite her new physical attributes, Connie says she feels like her old self. "I just have to retrain my muscles all over again," she says. "I have to exercise them every day just like doing push-ups or sit-ups every day."
Connie says she's regaining feeling in her face and making vast improvements. "I'm getting headaches with sinuses and stuff, but I feel a hundred percent better than I used to," she says.
Since she's still in recovery, Connie is used to people staring at her, but says she doesn't feel the need to explain her looks all the time. "I wouldn't mind if somebody came up to ask me, 'Hey, what happened to you?' I would talk to them. That wouldn't offend me," Connie says. "But the sneers and the secretiveness...I can feel them looking at me. I can't see them, but I can feel it."
Despite everything she's been through, Connie says she has considered going back to Tom. "He really needs somebody to talk to, he does. He needs help; he's got a temper," she says. "I just thought, 'He doesn't trust anyone.' I was the only one he trusted."
Connie says Alicia helped her realize she could never be with Tom again. "[I asked her], 'What kind of example would you set for me if you went back to the man that shot you?'" Alicia says.
The truth clicked for Connie when she heard her daughter's words. "Do I want her to live through what I went through? The ups and downs? Because everybody thinks it's going to get better. It's not going to get better unless they get help," she says.
For years, Connie tried to make excuses for Tom, claiming the shooting was an accident. "Well, guess what? I don't think it was," she says. "Today's the first time I've ever said that."
Alicia says it took her mother three or four years to realize she's better off without her husband and learn to be independent. "She needed to follow everyone; everyone could tell her what to do. She never really knew how to think for herself," she says.
Connie says she is almost ready to close the door on her relationship with Tom. "I'm really close to finally getting a divorce, and I packed up all his stuff," she says. "It's hard. This year would have been 30 years of being together."
Connie says she doesn't have a plan for the future just yet. "I'm just trying to move on," she says. "I want to watch [my grandsons] grow."