May 8, 2009 -- Just the sight of Connie Culp used to frighten young children. One even called her a monster.
That was before she debuted her new face. Now, five months after becoming the first American face transplant patient, Connie Culp is taking advantage of the opportunity to tell her story and warn others that what happened to her could happen to them.
"If your husband threatens you in any way, it's going to get worse. Even if they say something to you, they tell you … Oh, you're ugly, you're stupid," said Culp, whose face was obliterated in 2004 by a gunshot from her husband. "But if somebody points something at you and they say they're going to do it, eventually they're going to do it."
Despite that warning, Culp, 46, has not written off Thomas Culp, whose failed attempt at a murder-suicide sent him to prison for seven years
"I still love my husband," she said. "I forgave him the day he did it. I have to."
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 reliving 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."
Now Culp is looking to the future and all the little things she did without for five years -- the smell of soap, the tickle of a sneeze in her nose.
"It's so funny 'cause I was complaining about this pimple for a week. And the doctors were laughing at me," Culp told Diane Sawyer in an exclusive "Good Morning America" interview. "I said, here I am. I walked around for five years without a nose and here I am worried about a pimple. How funny is that? I just think that's so funny."
And when she sneezed for the first time, post-surgery, Culp joked she didn't know what to cover -- her mouth, her tracheal tube or her new nose.
Culp said all she knows about the person who donated her new face is that she was her same age and height. But 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 said.
Pleased With the Results
The 22-hour surgery, which took place over two days at the Cleveland Clinic, garnered widespread media attention shortly after it was completed. The operation was the world's fourth foray into face transplantation surgery.
While she still bears little resemblance to the woman she used to be, Culp said she's pleased with the results.
"The nose looked good, from what I could see," she said. "And my daughter said I looked great. So she wouldn't lie to me."
"I was worried about my weight and everything," she said of her life before the shooting, 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."
Culp still faces more surgery to remove loose skin the doctors left in case of swelling. The nerves in her face are rebuilding at a rate of one inch a month.
The experience has taught Culp to make sure to make the most out of her time with loved ones.
"You don't know if somebody's going to go out and hit somebody. That's why I always hug everybody before I leave them," she said. "Because you never know if you're going to see that person again."
Before the shooting, Culp said she and her husband had their own paint company "and we worked really good together, you know?"
The couple would spend time on a pond in their small rowboat and enjoyed days by the campfire.
"I mean, we had this stuff going on, and then one night, wiped it all away," she said. " I knew something bad was going to happen. I just never dreamed it was this."
Culp said her husband has told her that he's sorry, breaking down with a tear she can't yet feel.
"I don't want to hurt the other side of the family because I love them," she said. " We had good times and bad times, so we'll just leave it at that."
'There's a Monster, Mommy'
After the shooting, Culp remembered a trip to the grocery store where a little girl came up to her and said, "There's a monster, Mommy. There's a monster."
"So I took out my driver's license," Culp said, and held it out so the girl could see what she used to look like. "I said, 'But I had a bad person shoot me.' I said. 'That's why you never pick up a gun.'"
Though some criticized the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic for such a new, risky procedure, Culp said it was something she just had to do.
"I couldn't live the way I was," she said, describing how her face was sliding and in the month before surgery she couldn't keep anything in her mouth. "There was no way."
"It was terrible," she said. "I said you know what? Do I like being in pain? Or do I want to move on?"
Cleveland Clinic plastic surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow, who led the team that performed the operation, said that in a year, Culp's voice and expressions will be entirely different.
"She will never look like the donor. You know, she will never look like herself past the years before trauma," Siemionow said. "But her expressions will be hers. And I think that's what will identify her as Connie."
Now, as she gets used to her new face, Culp would like to remind people not to judge based on first impressions.
"I hear people make fun of people just for the shoes they wear, you know," she said. "That's like why waste your time on negative when there's so much positive out there you can do?"
But not everyone judges her at first glance. Her grandsons, she said, hardly give it a second thought.
"When he saw me with my nose, he pinched it and gave me a big hug and goes right on playing," she said. "He called me the other day and said, 'Grandma, I love you.' I mean, that makes your day."
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.