Extensive Face Transplant Gives Former Firefighter New Outlook On Life

Pat Hardison left for a call as a volunteer firefighter that would change his life. Fourteen years later, another call would do the same thing: a call to receive a face transplant.

Pat Hardison had been a volunteer firefighter for seven years prior to his accident. [Photo courtesy of the Hardison family]

“I didn’t do it to make a living, I did it because I loved it… at this department it’s different. It’s not like a fire department that volunteers, we’re a brotherhood.”

In 2001, Hardison was a 27-year-old husband, father, tire salesman, and volunteer firefighter. He and his wife Chrissi were raising their three children in a small Mississippi town. Hardison “had everything going,” or so he thought.

Hardison, who was the captain of the local volunteer fire department, arrived at a burning home, and rushed in to do what he loved, not giving it a second thought. He doesn’t remember much except for the ceiling collapsing around him, and his mask melting to his face. He pulled it off, closed his eyes, and held his breath as he somehow made his way out of the burning building.

Other members of the department rushed to save Hardison’s life, and some were uncertain whom they were working on, because Hardison was so badly burned.

Hardison, in baseball cap, before face transplant [Photo courtesy of the Hardison family] Hardison, in baseball cap, before face transplant [Photo courtesy of the Hardison family]By closing his eyes and holding his breath, Hardison was reportedly able to prevent smoke inhalation, and from losing his vision. However, over the next 63 days, Hardison recovered from burns that took his scalp, ears, eyelids, nose and lips; taking not only his face, but so much more.

“My kids were scared to death of me. You can’t blame them. They’re young kids,” Hardison said. “And you got to realize … we always did stuff every day, and all of the sudden that changed just overnight.”

Hardison’s surgeries went well over 70 in number, and most were reconstructive. He had implants placed for prosthetic ears, as well as skin grafts to try to rebuild his eyelids, nose, and mouth.

The surgeries couldn’t give Hardison back the life he lost, which sent him into a deep depression. Addicted to pain medication, he isolated himself and eventually, he and Chrissi divorced. After being told that, due to not having eyelids, he would soon go blind, Hardison began researching face transplants.

His quest sent him to Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who is a reconstructive surgeon. Rodriguez had recently replaced the face, jaw and tongue of a man who had been injured in a gun accident. The surgery, which took place in 2012, was the most extensive transplant to date, and Rodriguez was open to a new patient.

Hardison underwent a battery of testing and evaluations, and they began the search for a donor. The donor had to match several qualifications: they had to have the same blood type as Hardison, the same skin color and hair color, as well as a similar skeletal structure. In 2014, Hardison was placed on the transplant list.

Helen Irving, the CEO and president of LiveOnNY, helped Rodriguez find a donor for Hardison, but it wasn’t an easy task.

“This is possibly the most difficult search that we’ve ever done,” Irving said. “For sure it would have been made easier if more people signed up on the registry and more people said yes to donation, but in this particular instance we are looking for what I call a specific needle in a specific haystack.”

In July of this year, Hardison finally got his match. The donor was BMX rider, Dave Rodebaugh, who, sadly, was riding in Brooklyn without a helmet, and hit his head in a crash. He was declared brain-dead at 26-years-old.

Donor Dave Rodebaugh was a BMX rider from Columbus, Ohio. [Photo courtesy of Greg Mionske/Red Bull Content Pool] Donor Dave Rodebaugh was a BMX rider from Columbus, Ohio. [Photo courtesy of Greg Mionske/Red Bull Content Pool]On August 14, after a moment of silence to honor Rodebaugh, Hardison’s transplant team got to work. The surgery was 26 hours long, and then Hardison had to fight through rejection. After making it through that stage, Hardison had to re-learn how to speak and swallow.

It’s been three months since the surgery, and Hardison is slowly easing back into the things he thought he had lost forever. His beard is growing, and he was able to go out to Macy’s.

“I went to Macy’s to get clothes and I was just another guy, nobody is pointing or staring. I wasn’t scaring any kids,” he said. “It’s just– it’s very emotional, to have that.”

[Featured image courtesy of Hardison Family/NYU Langone Medical Center; Images found at ABCNews.com]