The world’s first face transplant recipient, Isabelle Dinoire, has been the subject of wide speculation in the press – that she has visited a bar, that she has been chainsmoking cigarettes and, according to her lawyer, Ahmed Akkal, that she has described her transplant as “like having a religious experience.”
But on Jan. 21, when the divorced mother of two spoke to PEOPLE from her second-floor room at the Eduard Herriot hospital in her first American interview since her Nov. 27 surgery, she emphasized that while she’s making progress, her recovery so far hasn’t been all roses.
In fact, Dinoire, 39, told PEOPLE: “There have been reports about me riding a bicycle through the streets, but these are nonsense. Lots has been said about how happy I am. But this has not always been the case.”
According to Dinoire, “I spend almost all of my time in my hospital room. Here I have radio and television, and there is also an exercise bike in the corner of the room. I haven’t started using it yet, but that may change, I suppose.”
She is also trying to regain weight that she lost during her ordeal. “I am eating as much as I can,” she says. “I love fresh strawberries, but have also eaten omelettes, chocolate cake and all kinds of other foods,” including, she says, “the odd glass of red wine.”
Still, she refused to confirm reports that she had visited a bar near the hospital, where her room has views of the bustling street below. And though she’s glad for visits from her teenage daughters Lucie and Laure, her lowest moments came at year’s end, when she wasn’t allowed to go home for the holidays.
“I spent Christmas here, which was pretty awful really,” she says. “The doctors cannot yet give me a date to go home.”
In the meantime, Dinoire, who was mauled last May by her black Lab mix after falling asleep on her sofa (both she and her doctor deny she had passed out after an overdose of sleeping pills), is, say her doctors, making remarkable strides. MRIs suggest returning sensation in the triangular patch of skin and muscle transplanted to her lower face.
In addition, facial expressiveness is slowly returning, and “she is talking quite clearly, although she has some problems with the letters p and b, which require the lips,” says Dr. Bernard Devauchelle, one of her primary surgeons. “She’s eating normally and drinking without dribbling.”
Just as important, says Devauchelle, “psychologically she has totally accepted her new face and wants to keep it. She certainly does not look like the living dead.”
But there has been a downside. Dinoire’s return to smoking is “not the best new thing she’s started doing,” says Devauchelle. “But if that’s what she wants to do, we can’t stop her. Her family is giving her plenty of cigarettes.”
For more from Dinoire’s interview with PEOPLE, pick up the latest issue, on newsstands Friday.