The volunteer firefighter who underwent the most extensive face transplant in history last year at a New York City hospital last year can now swim and drive a car.
NYU Langone Medical Center announced on Wednesday that 41-year-old Patrick Hardison is thriving a year after his historic transplant, and that his body hasn't attempted to reject his new face.
“The surgery has truly given me back my life,” he said. “I go about my day just like everyone else. It’s allowed me to do things with my family that I had not been able to do. I can’t tell you what a sense of freedom it is to even drive my kids to school. We recently went on a family vacation to Disney World, and I swam in the pool with them – something I hadn’t done in 15 years.”
Hardison, a former volunteer firefighter from Senatobia, Mississippi, has no scars on his face, and although he resembles his old self, some of his features are different. His eyes are smaller and his face is rounder, but he still has sandy brown hair.
The divorced father of five said one of the best moments of his life was seeing his children for the first time after the August 2015 surgery. Four of his children attended the news conference.
His 21-year-old daughter, Allison, said she cried after seeing him because she was so relieved.
"After the injury, he wasn't normal on the inside. He was very unhappy," she said. "Now he's happy with himself and happy with life."
Hardison was badly burned while fighting a fire in his hometown on Sept. 5, 2001. The then-27-year-old Hardison had been a volunteer firefighter for seven years and had entered the burning house to search for a woman. While he was searching, the roof collapsed and gave him third-degree burns on his head, neck and upper body.
Hardison spent two weeks in a burn center in Memphis, Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Senatobia, and lost his ears, lips, most of his noes and most of his eyelids. Doctors used grafts to reinforce what remained of his eyelids and sewed them nearly shut to protect his eyes, leaving him with pinhole vision.
Eventually a church friend wrote Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the chair of NYU Langone's plastic surgery department. Hardison was placed on a wait list for surgery in 2014 while doctors tried to find a facial match.
A year later, doctors matched Hardison with New York artist and cyclist David Rodenbaugh, who died in a bike accident in Brooklyn. Rodenbaugh's mother gave permission to use his face, and said that her son had always wanted to be a firefighter.
That gave way for the extensive, 26-hour surgery last August. Doctors stretched the new face over Hardison's skull and down the collar bones in front. In back, the transplant reaches far enough down that only a tiny patch of Hardison's original hair remains — its color matched by the dark blond hair growing on his new scalp. The transplant includes both ears and new eyelids and blinking mechanisms, allowing Hardison to again see.
Rodriguez called the surgery a "game changer."
"Being able to give Pat this level of independence is a primary reason why we undertook this surgery," Rodriguez says.
After the procedure, Hardison went through several months of rehabilitation and had a few other procedures to adjust his eyelids and lips and remove his feeding tube.
"Pat has been incredibly compliant with his post-surgical regimen, and that has allowed us to expedite his surgical schedule," Rodriguez said. "He is extremely committed to daily exercise, taking his medications and meeting with his physicians regularly. All of this has put him way ahead of schedule in terms of getting to the optimal level of recovery and appearance."
The hospital said that the next step in Hardison's recovery is to meet Rodenbaugh's family. The organization that arranged the donation, LiveOnNY is set to plan a meeting for later this fall.
"With many successful transplants, there is a donor or donor family that makes these altruistic gifts possible, at the most trying time in their lives,” said Irving. “We look forward to arranging their meeting.”