Face Transplant Patient to Donor Family: 'I Really Love Them for Being So Thoughtful'

'GMA' Exclusive: Diane Sawyer sits down with face transplant patient.

May 7, 2009— -- It was the smell of soap that made Connie Culp realize that her new face was functioning as it should. And it was just the beginning of a second chance at a normal life.

Culp, the first face transplant patient in the United States, said she is forever grateful to her donor's family, "because without them, I wouldn't have a face. "

"So I just want to, frankly, tell them I really love them for being so thoughtful," Culp told Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview airing Friday on "Good Morning America."

Watch "Good Morning America" Friday at 7 a.m. ET, for Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with face transplant patient Connie Culp.

That sniff of soap kicked off what would be a new kind of normal for Culp, 46, whose face was destroyed in 2004 when her husband shot her.

"And I realized then I could smell my mouthwashes," she remembered. "I said, 'Wow, I can smell.'"

The gunshot blast smashed her nose, cheek and jaw and took away her ability to see, smell or smile.

But Culp told Sawyer she has no interest in re-living that day.

"I want to be positive. I want to move on. That's what I said," she said. "Everything's going to be great from here on out. It's going to be good."

Culp said she still thinks about how she looked before the shooting.

"I was worried about my weight and everything," she said, lamenting how foolish that seems now. "You're always going to worry about something, you know, your waist, your weight... your hair. It's so funny."

Thomas Culp's failed attempt at a murder-suicide sent him to prison for seven years, but Connie Culp said she chose very early on to forgive him.

"I forgave him the day he did it," she said. "I have to."

Over the next four years, she endured dozens of surgeries. These procedures repaired some of the damage, but Culp remained disfigured and unable to eat or breathe on her own.

Five months ago, she underwent the transplant surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.

When Culp appeared publicly to thank the doctors who performed the surgery, the occasion was an emotional one.

"Well, I guess I'm the one you came to see today," said Culp said at a Tuesday press conference at the Cleveland Clinic. "While I know you all want to focus on me, I think it's more important you focus on the donor family that made it so I could have this Christmas present, I guess I should say."

The 22-hour surgery, which took place over two days, garnered widespread media attention shortly after it was completed. The operation was the world's fourth foray into face transplantation surgery.

Face Transplant Patient Is Resilient: Doctor

Currently, doctors are waiting to see how much function Culp will regain as the nerves in the graft continue to regenerate.

"We have to wait a little bit," said Dr. Maria Siemionow, the surgeon who led the team that performed the operation. "It is a major reconstruction ... over the next six to 12 months we will see the animation coming back to her face, but even as she is right now she's just one of us."

"She has nose, she has eyelids, she has lips ... what else [could] you want?"

"I just want to say when somebody has a disfigurement and don't look as pretty as you do, don't judge them because you never know what happened to them. I was shot," Culp said at her news conference.

Dr. Kathy Coffman, the psychiatrist who worked with Culp, said she was a resilient patient, having been through 27 procedures before the face transplant, and she believes Culp will be a good ambassador to other potential patients.

"She is a very down-to-earth person, and she was able to approach people before she had the surgery, when she had been injured," Coffman said. "Her resilience was key."

"I'm sure she will be willing to meet with other patients [and] candidates," Siemionow said.

Face Transplant Patient Still Faces Complex Issues

Though the surgeons regard Culp's recovery as a success so far, the new face means a lifelong adjustment. Culp continues to take powerful immunosuppressive drugs to reduce the risk that her body will reject her new face. She already endured a minor episode of rejection about a month and a half after the surgery. Fortunately, doctors were able to treat the problem quickly with high doses of the anti-rejection drugs.

Culp's new face is not done changing. In the coming weeks and months, doctors expect swelling to go down and even more function to return. The advances will be gradual, and they will require determination on Culp's part to maintain exercise therapy and continue to monitor the graft for any potential problems.

But Culp is no stranger to challenges. Since her injury, she has learned to read Braille. She has adapted to her new life using special serving cups, talking calculators and other tools to manage daily chores.

Still, she said that she occasionally still feels frustrated by her situation.

"Oh, yeah, I wouldn't be human if I didn't," she said.

Good Morning America producers contributed to this report.