Gone in a Split Second
Charlene Lawrence Ryan was a head-turner. The kind of beautiful young woman who caught people's attention. Stunning and smart, she used her good looks to help pay for college.
CHARLENE: My parents really pushed me into modeling and I would often do commercial photography. I did a lot of work for Revlon and Estee Lauder.
After college, Charlene built a career, got married, became a parent and then a grandparent. But in a split second, Charlene's life. In fact, Charlene herself became unrecognizable.
In 1993, Charlene was in her jeep following her husband Keith as he drove a moving van to their new home. They pulled off the highway when the van had steering trouble.
KEITH: I heard a terrible crash and I saw a car go into the woods on my left, which was actually the car that hit her. And I got out of the truck and ran around to where she had just been and she wasn't there. The shoulder was empty and the Jeep with her in it was on fire in the fast lane.
Keith raced to pull her out of the burning car, but her doors were locked.
KEITH: I had a spare key in my wallet, and I remember yelling to one of the people who ran up to take the key and get the door open, and we got her out of the Jeep.
CHARLENE: I remember thinking "No, I'm okay" and I felt like someone was restraining me on the side of the road, pushing me down, and I said "No, I'm okay" and that's really about all I can remember.
but she wasn't okay. Charlene was taken by helicopter to the university of Maryland shock trauma center, where she spent the next seven hours in surgery. Every bone in her face was broken, she lost the vision in one eye, and her left side was covered with third-degree burns.
KEITH: We had this tape of Char in the hospital chair and looking pretty badly disfigured, and it just ripped me to shreds.
CHARLENE: One grandson was born shortly before our accident, and he was my guiding light. I lived for holding Jeremy in my arms again and putting him against my chest.
Charlene endured six years of skin grafts, scar removal surgeries and painful burn treatments. And as if that weren't enough, her forehead had to be removed and replaced with a plastic one.
CHARLENE: That was a really big deal for me. With the forehead removed, you look very much like a primitive, a Neanderthal is pretty much the way.
For this former model, the disfigurement was devastating. It took 28 operations over 15 years to rebuild Charlene's face. But in the process, she also gained a whole new perspective.
CHARLENE: Focusing when you're young about a pimple, like I would take a Band-Aid and put it on over a simple blemish so people thought it was a sore instead, that's so immaterial. Just so immaterial.
I think I've learned not to sweat all the immaterial things and really look at all the things that are truly important.
KEITH: Char has unflappable resolve. I mean, she just works through anything. And that's been critical for her to get through the physical and the psychological avalanche.
Charlene says she gets the greatest satisfaction from giving back. She volunteers in her community trying to help brighten the lives of others.
CHARLENE: I'm a humorous, positive person, a very happy-go-lucky person. And I think I've been able to survive everything by taking what happened before and keeping it behind me, not looking back and only looking forward.
Looking forward isn't always easy. Charlene still faces some major health challenges. But for a woman who has endured so much, it's finding the joy in today that gives Charlene hope for the future.
CHARLENE: Life is really beautiful. Every day I look at the water, being happy living for the moment, being grateful for today. I look forward to my new grandchild.
I'd like to start painting again. I'd like to go back to Paris and take a cooking class. I mean, I like to dream! That keeps you going!
This entry last modified on: January 25, 2013 10:44 AM
About the Video
The face that brought Charlene Ryan success as a model was destroyed in a split-second car accident. As surgeons fashioned a new face, Ryan developed a new outlook.