A Mississippi firefighter burned in a trailer-home fire is thriving one year after receiving a face transplant.
“I feel great. I honestly do,” Patrick Hardison, 42, marveled at a news conference held Wednesday at NYU Langone Medical Center, where the surgery was performed.
His new eyelids, ears, nose, lips, scalp and hair came from 27-year-old Brooklyn bicyclist, David Rodebaugh, who died in a crash in 2015.
The improvement that most gratifies Hardison is being able to see clearly (“20-25 vision in one eye and 20-30 in the other”) now that functioning eyelids keep his corneas moist and occasionally even leak a tear.
But even the ease of driving, swimming, sleeping, “getting a haircut, and shaving in the morning is great,” said the veteran of more than 80 surgical procedures, including four minor revisions and removal of his trach and feeding tubes after his face transplant.
Of the 40 face transplants performed worldwide, Hardison received “the most extensive soft tissue face transplant that has been performed anywhere in the world,” said Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone and the physician who led a team of 100 people in the epic transplant.
After the flaming ceiling of the trailer home melted Hardison’s mask and flesh, he was left without a face but also without hair or a normal scalp; he now has a lush head of hair.
Hardison, who attended the news conference with four of his five children, also thanked the family of Rodebaugh, who was declared brain dead Aug. 12, 2015, after crashing a few weeks earlier into a pedestrian while riding his bike and landing on his head.
Hardison said he hopes to meet the family of the Brooklyn bike mechanic and bicyclist sometime this autumn to relay his thanks personally.
Hardison takes three different rejection drugs twice a day but as a result of good patient selection (tissue typing that found his blood and genetic makeup a good match to Rodebaugh) Hardison has been able to lower the dose, Rodriguez noted.
Life since the transplant has far exceeded the existence he faced after the fateful fire, holed up at home, visibly disfigured and variously unable and unwilling to go out.
Because he was a volunteer firefighter, he wasn’t insured for the catastrophe, and fell swiftly into financial ruin. “I had a disability insurance policy that saved me,” and Workmen’s Compensation Insurance, but had to close his tire dealership and stop working as he struggled with an addiction to pain killers.
His marriage broke up in 2008 (“we went through a whole lot in a short time”) and Hardison moved in with his mother. Now sharing joint custody of their minor children, Hardison hopes to begin a career in motivational speaking. “I have to do something!” he exclaimed and the lesson of 14 years as the man without a face is to “never give up hope.”
The landmark operation was the first for NYU and a stunning debut of its new face transplant program. Hardison’s care cost about a $1 million and was covered by grants, explained Leslie Bernstein, administrative director for department of plastic surgery and the face transplant program.
The Medical Center is working assiduously with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and other orgs “to provide coverage and CPT codes,” for other patients who may have the need for such mammoth, complicated procedures.
There is currently no waiting list for facial transplant patients, Rodriguez said.