Brain and Body

Surgeons Performed Most Intricate Face Transplant in History

November 18, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

atrick Hardison before his surgery (left) and in November 2015, nearly three months after the surgery
Photo credit: NYU Langone Medical Center

A wounded firefighter’s life has been changed forever.

Patrick Hardison, a volunteer firefighter in his hometown in Tennessee, had no idea that his life would change forever after getting a desperate call about a woman trapped inside a house in flames. He raced to the scene to help, and inside the house, a burning roof suddenly collapsed on him. He lost his eyelids, ears, lips, hair, and most of his nose, according to The Washington Post. His face, head, neck and upper torso suffered from disfiguring third-degree burns, and he couldn’t even close his eyes completely because the skin was so badly damaged.

Hardison received over 70 surgeries involving multiple grafts from his legs to his face, but his facial damage was so extensive that he was still incapable of returning to a normal life. Then, his case came to the attention of Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, who would go on to drastically transform his future.

A team of more than 100 surgeons, doctors, nurses, and support staff convened at the NYU Langone Medical Center, taking on the most elaborate face transplant in medical history. Patrick’s donor was a man named David Rodebaugh, a 26-year-old BMX cyclist who was left in a vegetative state after a major accident. Rodebaugh and Hardison were matched because the two had compatible height, weight, skin tone, hair color, and blood type.

David Rodebaugh, face donor.
26-year-old David  P. Rodebaugh was a Brooklyn artist who sustained fatal injuries in a motorcycle incident. Photo credit: NYU Langone Medical Center

The operation took an incredible 26 hours and achieved a number of medical milestones. Perhaps the most impressive was that Hardison received the donor’s eyelids and the muscles that control blinking, eliminating his high risk of losing sight. According to NYU Langone’s press release, Hardison was previously unable to perform daily tasks such as driving. Furthermore, blinking is a critical body mechanism since it hydrates and cleans the eyes to prevent infection and preserve vision.

During the operation, Hardison’s scarred, disfigured face was cut away before the doctors connected his new face by attaching nerve endings, bones, and blood vessels — the skin of the new face was then “re-draped” over him, according to The Guardian. The publication reports that, before the face transplant, Dr. Rodriguez told Hardison he had a 50/50 chance of surviving the risky procedure. Thanks to science and a little medical magic, the outcome was a happy one.

According to Dr. Rodriguez, at least three other facial transplant patients around the world died after rejecting the new tissue, and physicians usually expect to see some kind of reaction within 90 days of surgery. But miraculously, three months later, Hardison is doing just fine.

SEE ALSO: The Majority of This Man’s Brain Disappeared — and He Didn’t Even Notice

In an extremely moving experience, Dr. Rodriguez recounts when he and some of the other physicians accompanied Hardison on a shopping trip in public: “We took him to Macy’s to buy clothes and for him it was so remarkable that no one stared at him, no one looked [at] him,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “It was a very emotional exchange for us.”

Hardison’s procedure was paid for by a university grant, but the procedure, preparation, and rehabilitation cost between $850,000 and $1 million, according to Dr. Rodriguez.

This monumental face transplant has set the bar high for future programs and procedures to help wounded soldiers and first-responders who suffered devastating injuries in the line of duty. Hardison has been given the gift of a second chance at a normal life, and there are plenty of other honorable men and women who deserve the same.

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