For some people who make headlines, the 15 minutes of fame come and go and life eventually returns to normal. But for others, like Charla Nash, the painful process of picking up the pieces lasts long after the news cameras have gone away. Nine months after the terrifying attack that put her in the headlines, Charla Nash is speaking out for the first time.
On February 16, 2009, Charla went over to the Stamford, Connecticut, home of her friend and employer, Sandra Herold. According to news reports, Sandra called Charla because Sandra's 14-year-old pet chimpanzee, Travis, escaped and she needed help getting him back inside.
When Charla arrived, Travis savagely attacked her. Sandra called 911, and when police arrived, they found Charla in a devastating state. "I would never have imagined that an animal could have done that," emergency worker Andrea Repko says. "[Her hands] honestly looked like they went through a meat grinder."
Against all odds, Charla survived the brutal attack though the chimp broke most of the bones in her face and ripped off her nose, lips, eyes and hands. A large portion of her scalp is missing, she only has one thumb, and doctors have created a hole in her face for her to get fluids through a straw.
For the past nine months, Charla's been recovering at the Cleveland Clinic. On her 56th birthday, she opened up to Oprah. "I'm getting stronger and healthier," Charla says. "I'd like to put across to people's minds that these exotic animals are very dangerous and they shouldn't be around."
Charla says she can't remember anything from the day of the vicious attack, and she's glad for that. "I don't want to remember, because I couldn't imagine what it was like," she says. "I want to get healthy. I don't want to wake up with nightmares."
One thing Charla does remember, though, is that Travis the chimp had always been scary. "One time he was running around the yard and swinging off the trees of the house, and he jumped on my back and he pulled a big hunk of hair out of my head," she says. "I had tears in my eyes and [Sandra] was laughing and I told her, 'It hurts.'"
When Charla awoke in the hospital after the attack, she says she couldn't at first understand what had happened to her. "I do remember I kept saying that, 'Well, one of these days I'm going to see.' And then the doctors said, 'No, you're never going to see again,' and I'm like: 'Well, I don't know. They don't know what they're talking about,'" Charla says. "But the eye doctor came in a couple weeks ago and said that it's a shame they had to remove my eyes, and that's when I really knew."
Despite her extensive injuries, Charla says she is not in any pain. She wears a veil in front of her face daily, but more for the sake of others than herself. "[I wear it] so I don't scare people," she says. "Sometimes other people might insult you, so I figure maybe it's easier if I just walk around covered up."
For the first time in public, Charla agrees to lift her veil. She has been keeping her face secret because she knows the tabloids having been angling for a picture of her. There has even been an armed guard posted outside Charla's door to protect her privacy from anyone who might want to photograph her. However, Charla says she isn't really worried about the public reaction to the destruction that has occurred to her face. "People are going to say what they're going to say," she says. "I need to move forward and get better and stronger."
Though Charla says she's still the same person she was before the attack, there are things she misses. "I'm just sorry I can't spend more time with my daughter," she says. "I know she misses me. I miss her too." Seventeen-year-old Briana is a senior in high school and is living with friends in Stamford while her mother is in Ohio.
When Briana visits her mother, Charla says they just enjoy being together. "We lay next to each other and we hold each other and we talk about things—what she does at school or with her friends." Next year, Briana will be heading off to college, which Charla says she's excited about. "I want her to have the best. I always wanted everything good for her."
Despite her setbacks, Charla has dreams for her own future. "I'm not a candidate for a hand transplant because I have no eyesight," Charla says. "I'm hoping somewhere along the line I'll be evaluated and that maybe when I get a face transplant. The hand transplant will be done with it because they have to be done at the same time from the same donor."
These days, Charla is working on getting up and walking around. "If I don't feel good, I still push myself to walk during the day," she says.
After her horrific ordeal, Charla says she is counting on the support of her loved ones. "Before I was really independent, wanted to be alone," she says. "One thing I'm noticing now is I want to be independent, but I don't want to be alone anymore. It's scary. I don't want to be out somewhere and somebody's stalking me and I don't know it. I don't want to get on the wrong bus somewhere or lost in a store. It's just not the same."
The resolve that has helped Charla with her recovery isn't new to her, she says. "I've always known that I've been strong," she says. "If I couldn't do anything, I just took my time, took a breath and then tried it again."
When the accident first took place, Charla says she thought about giving up. "In the beginning, I was unhappy," she says. "[But] my brothers made it easy. It made me realize how much I needed them."
Though vanity has to be put aside when someone faces a tragedy like Charla's, she says she was never a vain person. "I was like a bag lady," she says. "I'd wear my snowsuit, my winter coat and my ski hat on my head. Every once in a while I'd get dressed up and nobody knew it was me."
Charla says she really can't be concerned with what other people think about her looks now. "I'm the one who has to like this," she says. "Not them. So it doesn't matter what they say."
The people who love Charla know that she's the same person she always was, and she says that's the most important thing. "I just look different," she says. "Things happen in life that you can't change. It's a tragedy."
The Nash family is suing Sandra Herold for $50 million. Though Herold had no comment regarding Oprah's interview, her lawyer issued a statement. "All of Sandy's hopes and prayers are with Charla and her daughter in this challenging time. Sandy has always tried to help Charla and wished her the best. When Charla lost her job, it was Sandy who provided her with employment and a place to live. Sandy hopes and prays for a full and speedy recovery."