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Challenging year ahead for Quebec acid burn victim who got a new lease on life

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The image Tanya St-Arnauld sees in the mirror today bears little resemblance to the one she looked at a year ago.

Scars crisscrossed her severely burned face just as gashes marred her scalp when the new year dawned.

Burn marks covered her upper body from her arms to her waist, and the skin grafts she had undergone for months had done little to repair the damage.

St-Arnauld's injuries were sustained in what police allege was an acid attack perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend during the summer of 2012.

At the start of last year, the 30-year-old Montreal native believed she was in for more of the continuous rounds of burn treatments and physical rehabilitation that had come to define her life in the days since the alleged attack.

But an appearance on the Anderson Cooper show back in February led to changes that gave St-Arnauld a drastically different appearance as well as a new lease on life.

"I look like I never had an accident. If I put a turtleneck on, I look completely normal," St-Arnauld said in a telephone interview from Montreal. "You would never be able to tell it was me who got burned."

The transformation began when St-Arnauld was invited to appear on the U.S. talk show "Anderson Live."

Her story had been making headlines for months before her television debut, but St-Arnauld was still too seriously injured to make the trip to New York for the broadcast.

Cooper's researchers used the extra time to contact doctors to appear alongside St-Arnauld when she was well enough to travel.

One of those specialists was Dr. Jill Waibel of the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute in Florida.

When Waibel and St-Arnauld finally did meet on camera, the doctor lost no time in offering the burn victim a free course of laser treatments to speed her recovery.

St-Arnauld recalls bursting into tears of joy and gratitude upon hearing the news, saying the treatment Waibel was offering was markedly more sophisticated than the care she was receiving back home.

The pain was hard enough to deal with for someone who had never even sustained a sunburn prior to her attack.

Tougher still, however, was losing range of motion throughout most of her body.

"You don't realize how important it is to be able to stretch your arm fully out until you lose it, because it's so for granted that you can move your arm, and you can grab a glass from a table, and you can put something on top of your cupboard ," she said. "...but when you can't do that any more, aesthetics take a second space to what's important. They become a great bonus from heaven."

Regaining that range of motion had become St-Arnauld's top priority, she said, adding Waibel's proposed laser treatments had potential to accelerate her recovery by months or even years.

So starting in June, she began the first in a long series of treatments at the Florida clinic.

St-Arnauld said doctors there effectively use lasers to reinflict mild burns over her injuries in order to stimulate skin cell growth. They then use the lasers to alter the thickness of scar tissue, change skin pigmentation and rebuild the skin's elasticity.

St-Arnauld said the four treatments she has received so far are far from pleasant to endure at the time, but are well worth the short-term discomfort.

Today she said the skin on her back looks "practically virgin," adding injuries to her face are all but obliterated.

The year ahead will not be without its challenges.

St-Arnauld plans to continue taking laser treatments to address the serious damage that remains on her neck, arms and torso.

She wants to try and begin rebuilding her hairstyling career that was effectively put on hold as a result of her injuries.

Yet more daunting is the prospect of facing her alleged attacker in court during his trial that's currently scheduled for next August.

Still, St-Arnauld said she feels ready to face the challenges ahead for one simple reason: "I feel like myself again."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/140102/challenging-year-ahead-quebec-acid-burn-victim-who-got-new-l