For Carmen Tarleton, the day started out normally enough. Tarleton, 45, had errands to run, a piano lesson to get to, a house to tidy. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day, and for the first time in a long time — the first time since the attack five years earlier — she looked forward to spending it with a new boyfriend. And then everything changed. The phone rang, and Tarleton’s surgeon gave her the news: after more than a year of searching, doctors were optimistic that they’d finally found her a new face.

That same day, more than 100 miles from Tarleton’s home in the bucolic hills of Thetford, Vermont, 30-year-old Marinda Righter was flipping through the pages of an old anatomy textbook in her apartment. Her mother, Cheryl, had days earlier slipped into a coma following a massive stroke that robbed her of brain function. As plans were outlined for organ donation, doctors at the local hospital approached Righter with a startling question: when they took her mother off life support, would she also consent to giving away Cheryl’s face? With five minutes to make up her mind, Righter locked herself in her home office and looked to the pages of that book. She marveled at the intricacy of the human body, at the complex tangle of nerves, muscles and skin that comprised a single face. She imagined what her own mother’s face, already drained of life, could restore in someone else.

Less than 24 hours later, at 5AM on February 14th, 2013, Carmen Tarleton was wheeled into an operating room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, for an experimental procedure that would replace her own scarred, mangled face with that of recently deceased 56-year-old Cheryl Denelli-Righter. If the surgeons succeeded, Tarleton would become just the seventh American patient to undergo a risky, experimental procedure known as a face transplant.