British model Katie Piper's dreams were derailed when a complete stranger threw sulfuric acid in her face on a London street in March 2008.
The vicious attack left Piper horribly disfigured and sent the 24-year-old into a whirlwind of reconstructive surgeries. Acid melted all of the skin on her face, neck and hands and when she arrived at the hospital, she was missing an ear, parts of her nose and was blind in one eye.
Her parents, David and Diane Piper, had difficulty recognizing their beloved daughter. "When they said, 'Is this your daughter?' I remember thinking, 'I don't know,'" David said.
Doctors at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital rushed to determine the next steps of treatment.
"We had to stabilize all different areas. And then...my first reaction was, 'What the hell are we gonna do with this girl,'" said Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who specializes in reconstructive surgery on burn victims, and spearheaded Piper's treatment. "Medically speaking, I had no idea."
Complicating her condition, Piper had swallowed some of the acid during the attack -- badly damaging her esophagus and stomach. To manage the pain, she spent days going in and out of a medically induced coma. At one point, she woke up delirious and hysterical.
"We got called in the middle of the night when she became uncontrollable, and they literally couldn't hold her down while they injected her to sedate her," her father said. "And she looked at me, she thought I was attacking her... That was very hard."
Her parents said this was one of the many low moments in the hospital. "I remember thinking, 'Do I really want her to survive? She's so disfigured, she could be totally blind...What sort of life is she gonna have,'" David said. "And I do, I do feel guilty, even now, about that."
Skin Substitute Gives Shape to Burned Face
The damage to Piper's face was so severe that Jawad and her team of doctors decided on a revolutionary new type of treatment. They mixed thin strips of a synthetic skin substitute called Matriderm with tiny squares of real skin stripped from Piper's back. The combination was then layered onto Piper's face, which slowly began to take shape.
At first, in the hospital, Piper was unable to speak and was forced to communicate by writing on a board.
"She was writing these notes, I was reading them out loud just to make sure I got it right. And then when she wrote 'Kill me,' I couldn't read that back to her," Diane said. "I didn't know what to do. Luckily, there was a nurse with her and she took over. And I, I just left the room and I couldn't cope with that."
After seven weeks in the burn unit and a stint in intensive care, Piper was released from the hospital -- but many hurdles remained.
At home, she was forced to wear a plastic mask 23 hours a day to help her wounds heal. Her mother quit her job to focus on Piper's care.
Piper's Medical Marathon
After the major skin graft on her face, Piper required 30 more procedures. But it seemed that there was no end in sight -- a fear Piper voiced to her mother.
"That is what my life is, recovery. You wouldn't understand because it didn't happen to you. I've never in my life been like this, where there is no point waking up," she told her mother from her hospital bed.
"Sometimes the tears would be streaming down my eyes, down my face. Because I was just looking at this poor, raw, red face that was once my beautiful daughter," Diane said.
In August 2008, Jawad sent Piper for special treatment at a rehab unit in France.
"I found out a place in the South of France which looks after these post-burn patients very well," he said. "They provide a very intense, inpatient, scar management."
Jawad also knew that the clinic would expose Piper to other badly scarred burn victims -- which could help in her psychological recovery.
"It was good to feel that I had a support network, but, unfortunately because it was in France, everybody spoke French," she said. "I did do French at school but I got a C so, you know...But it was fantastic and it's important to surround yourself by people that have an understanding and empathy, but don't pity you."
Piper Speaks Out
Piper's confidence grew and 18 months after she was burned beyond recognition, she went for her first evening out since the attack.
"I never dreamed that we'd see her like that again," said her sister Suzy. "And so, to look at her I just thought that it's Kate again. She's back, you know. And it was so nice."
Almost two years after the acid attack, Piper is finally comfortable appearing in public.
Piper first told her story in a British television documentary, "My Beautiful Face," which gave her the platform to rebuild her life. She now wants to help other burn victims receive the same extensive rehab that she did.
"We actually talk about it now -- she wants to set up a clinic here in London so, you know, anyone who is burnt can go to this clinic for as much rehab as possible," said best friend Kay Little. "I think she's actually probably got a brighter future now than she had as a, you know, as a model and, and TV presenter."
By sharing her story, Piper hopes to inspire others to become comfortable in their new skin.
"The scars, the mask, everything encased me in this little shell, and I want to break free and be my own person," she said. "I want to be rid of that and just be Katie.
Katie Piper's Foundation: http://www.katiepiperfoundation.org.uk/