Firefighter's life back to normal after successful face transpla - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Firefighter's life back to normal after successful face transplant

Patrick Hardison, after the successful face transplant. (Source: WMC Action News 5) Patrick Hardison, after the successful face transplant. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Patrick before his transplant. (Source: Family) Patrick before his transplant. (Source: Family)
Patrick before his injury (Source: Family) Patrick before his injury (Source: Family)
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    Two years ago, a Mississippi firefighter's journey touched the heart of millions. Now, his community stepped up to surprise the firefighter.

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    Two years ago, a Mississippi firefighter's journey touched the heart of millions. Now, his community stepped up to surprise the firefighter.

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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) -

One year ago, a Senatobia firefighter received a face transplant. Now, he said he is living a normal life.

In August 2015, a team of surgeons performed the surgery on firefighter Patrick Hardison. It was the most extensive face transplant to date at the time.

"This is the third face that Patrick lived with,” Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez said.

Hardison was badly burned in a fire in 2001. Multiple surgeries did not help his condition, until his mother received an offer for the transplant from NYU.

Senatobia Fire Chief Gary Copeland and Hardison rode together to the house fire that changed Patrick’s life forever.

“Pat was the type of guy--he loved the fire department,” Copeland said.

Hardison was wearing an oxygen tank and all his protective gear when he searched the burning home as a frantic husband insisted that his wife was inside.

“Part of the ceiling collapsed on Pat,” Copeland said. “And knocked his helmet off, and some fire got down behind his coat.”

Patrick was on fire. He said he held his breath and ran for a window.

“We get to the very back room, and that's when the ceiling came down,” Hardison said. “I can see everything melting on me, so I just had to hold my breath and throw everything off me just so I can get to a window."

Patrick’s friend,Bricky Cole, was there as they pulled him out.

“In 15, 20 years of this, the worst thing I've seen that somebody actually lived through,” Cole said.

Pat was flown to the burn unit at Regional One.

“His skin--all this was sliding off his face,” Patrick’s mother, Elaine Hardison, said.

The fire burned Patrick's entire face, head, neck, and upper torso. He lost his eyelids, ears, lips, and most of his nose, along with all his hair, including his eyebrows. Days later, his own mother couldn’t recognize him.

“I thought, ‘I've got to the wrong room,’ and I walked out,” she said. “And I traced my steps back and I said, ‘no, that’s Pat.’ That’s what he’s going to look like.”

He was in a coma and when he woke up, he had nothing but pin holes for eyes and a hole the size of a straw for a mouth.

Multiple surgeries did not help Hardison’s condition.

“I was that guy at one time thinking there is no hope. I'll die this way I'm living now,” he said.

“To go out and eat, people looked at him like he was a freak,” Elaine Hardison said. “They called him names. Children screamed and cried. Parents would say if you don’t want people looking at you, don’t go out to eat. Stay at home.”

“He had one of those masks and he went to a local bank, pulled up to the window and they thought he was there to rob them,” Copeland said.

Through 14 years of darkness and so many difficulties, Patrick said he prayed for a miracle.

His mother received an offer for the transplant from NYU Langone Medical Center.

There were several false starts: potential donors who ended up not being the right match. The right one arrived in August 2015.

David Rodebaugh, 26, was not wearing his bike helmet when he crashed. Rodebaugh, a bicycle messenger, suffered fatal injuries.

Dr. Rodriguez met with David’s mother, who donated all her son’s organs, including his face. Rodebaugh was a registered organ donor.

“The primary motivation for her to donate his face was that her son always wanted to be a firefighter,” Rodriguez said.

Dr. Rodriguez and a team of surgeons can now mark the one-year anniversary of the miracle.

“He is a fireman now,” David’s sister, Lori Taylor, said. “He lives right along --- right along with my brother."

Taylor said she has deep gratitude for everyone in David’s family.

“As a mom, it would be so hard to do that, I think. It's kind of the ultimate sacrifice for a mother,” Taylor said. “The first time I saw a picture of the donor, we looked at him and we were like, wow, this man looks like he could be our little brother already."

The operation took 26 hours at NYU. Rogriguez and his team rehearsed repeatedly on cadavers. They first removed David’s scalp, hair, and all his facial features as one unit. Then, they did the same to Patrick’s fire-damaged face and scalp.

Click here to learn more about the procedure from NYU Langone Medical Center

With meticulous precision, Rodriguez was able to transplant David’s face to Patrick.

“It always takes a courageous individual, because we could not provide any data, any statistics on the success on this operation because nothing like this had ever been done,” Rodriguez said.

Patrick’s recovery has been steady. The swelling has lessened over the year and his facial hair is now able to grow.

“Once they put that new face on me, it became my face. Once that family said yes, we'll go with organ donation, we'll do that, then that became my face and it's mine,” Hardison said.

"I think it's come full circle,” Rodriguez said. “And I'm incredibly grateful to this community, this support, and for this incredible individual who is very courageous and never had any doubt. Not for one second."

It was the first ever face transplant of its kind. A year later, Hardison is driving, having fun with his children, and eating on his own.

"He is the right individual to have underwent this treatment,” Rodriguez said.

Almost a year later, NYU Langone Medical Center said Hardison is thriving and made a remarkable recovery. He showed no signs of rejecting the transplant, his eyesight and blinking mechanisms have been preserved, and he's been able to resume the everyday things he loves to do.

"He continued to say, ‘you do your part and I will do mine,’ and that’s exactly what happened,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez hopes Patrick’s surgery opens the door for more to be possible.

“We're not going to stop. This is only just the beginning,” he said. “We want to make these surgical procedures almost routine."

Hardison said he is now just a normal dad spending time with his kids, cooking, cleaning, and taking on the world. He has taken trips to Disney and goes to the gym.

“For 14 years, I didn't have that (eyebrows, eyelids, etc.). Like I said, I thought it was one of the things I thought I never would have again,” Hardison said. “I can remember that night praying, asking some kind of miracle where I can get close to normal as possible, and this is where we’re at today."

Patrick said he endured the incredible suffering so he could be a father to his kids.

“You can lay down and give up, but when you got kids, that's not in my cards,” he said.

“Those five beautiful children are his reason for breathing,” Taylor said.

He has hopes to be an inspiration to others. He said he wants to remind others standing where he was that hope can get them through anything, and he will be their light to the future.

“Hopefully Pat can take the gift that he's been given, and go out and reach people all over the world,” Copeland said.

"At some point when the time is right, and that's determined by the donor family, they will meet each other and I think it will be an exciting time," Rodriguez said.

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