For Patrick Hardison, the Mississippi volunteer firefighter who underwent the world’s most extensive face transplant one year ago, the highlights of the past year have been things most people take for granted: People no longer stare. Children don’t run away. He can drive again.
When he went to Disney World with his family, he was able to swim in the pool. It was the first time in 15 years.
“I’m pretty much back to being a normal guy, doing normal activities,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.
Hardison, now 42 years old and the father of five, suffered severe, disfiguring burns on his face while on duty in an accident. Last August, Hardison underwent a marathon surgery where a team of more than 100 doctors, nurses and technical assistants gave him a new face donated by the family of a 26-year-old Ohio native, David Rodebaugh, who died when he fell off his bike.
The surgery is part of a transplant revolution in recent years that includes penis transplants in wounded soldiers, the double hand transplant in a young boy and a uterus transplant in a woman who was unable to bear children.
Doctors at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, where the face transplant was performed, said this week that Hardison has had several follow-up procedures in the months after the original transplant.
These surgeries were described mostly as “small revisions” to his new eyelids and lips, and procedures to remove a feeding tube from his stomach and a breathing tube from his throat. The details of their work were described in articles in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery earlier this year.
Eduardo D. Rodriguez, the surgeon who led Hardison’s team, said that he is “amazed” at Hardison’s recovery and that it has “surpassed all of our expectations.”
“We have entered a new era in transplant surgery,” he added. “The work being done … is pushing the boundaries of medicine and surgery and opening up new avenues to restore the lives of people like Patrick. It’s a very exciting time.”
Rodriguez said the most significant achievement was that Hardison has not experienced a single incident of his body rejecting the transplanted face. He said he thinks a lot of the credit goes to the careful and comprehensive approach the team took in the matching process. This includes taking into account facial bone structure and using stem cells from the donor to help stimulate the growth.
Another major victory was that the surgery restored Hardison’s normal eyelid function, such as closing them completely and blinking. Before the transplant, Hardison had been homebound because of his lack of vision and inability to perform regular, daily tasks. He was also in danger of losing his eyesight because his eyes were not protected by normal blinking and tears, which help get rid of foreign bodies and ward off infections.
Appearing onstage Wednesday, Hardison was dressed up in a blue checkered shirt and khakis. He appeared comfortable and cheerful and described in very articulate terms his life before and after the transplant.
When a reporter asked about his ability to eat after the surgeries, he rubbed his stomach and joked that he had “gained about 30 pounds.” When asked about what his biggest challenge is every day, he responded, “Well, I got five kids.”
“My life is great right now,” he said. “I’m happy, and my kids are all healthy, so what more could you ask for?”
He said he hopes that sharing his story will help other people with injuries — especially firefighters and other first responders and military service members. Hardison said that he understands why so many attempt suicide.
“I know where those guys are at, and I want them to know there is a better life out there,” he said.
Hardison said one of the things he is most looking forward to doing is meeting the mother of the donor.
“We reached out to her. She knows that we’re ready when she’s ready. … We are all anxious and excited for the day when we meet her,” he said.
“His mother,” Hardison said, “she gave me a gift, and there is no way I could ever thank her enough.”
Find out more about the procedure here.
This post has been updated.