Firefighter gets new face in groundbreaking face transplant surgery

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A volunteer firefighter from Mississippi whose face was burned off during a home fire rescue received the world’s most extensive face transplant, New York University Langone Medical Center said on Monday.

After a 26-hour surgery performed at the New York hospital in August, 41-year-old Patrick Hardison is living with the face of 26-year-old David Rodebaugh, a BMX extreme bicycling enthusiast from Brooklyn who was pronounced brain dead after an extreme cycling accident.

Patrick Hardison was working as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Senatobia, 40 miles south of Memphis, when he got a desperate call. A house was in flames, with a woman trapped inside. Hardison arrived on the scene and raced inside, moments before the roof suddenly collapsed. His helmet was knocked off, and he felt his mask melting. He closed his eyes and jumped out the window.

Hardison lost his eyelids, ears, lips and most of his nose, as well as his hair, because of that fire. He also had disfiguring third-degree burns across his entire face, head, neck and upper torso. His skin was so badly damaged that he was not even able to close his eyes completely.

“From that day on, Sept. 5, 2001, there was no normal tissue left throughout his face,” Eduardo D. Rodriguez, chair of plastic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center, said in recounting the first responder’s story.

In the most extensive plastic surgery face transplant surgery to date, Patrick Hardison received a full scalp and face, including ears, nose, lips and upper and lower eyelids.

For the first time since that raging fire in Senatobia, Mississippi in 2001, Hardison can blink and even sleep with his eyes closed – key steps to sparing his blue eyes from blindness that previously seemed all but inevitable, said Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the plastic surgeon who led the 150-person medical team which comprised of doctors, nurses and technical assistants that performed the procedure.

Simultaneous surgeries took place, [Dr. Eduardo] Rodriguez said, with Hardison on one operating table while Rodebaugh was on the other. The NYU medical team had practiced for a full year to get it right.

“You only have one chance to land the Rover. The same goes with the face,” Rodriguez told Reuters following a news conference in New York earlier on Monday.

The team slit the skin at the back of the donor’s head, peeling each side forward with key pieces of bone attached at the chin, nose and cheekbone and then precisely draped it, like Batman’s cowl, onto Hardison’s head.

“Everything has to be perfectly positioned,” Rodriguez told Reuters, including the bones, muscles, ear canals, lips and nerves.

The entire procedure cost US$1million, and will be paid for by a grant from NYU.

Proof of the surgery’s success was obvious after a medical team took Hardison shopping for new clothes at Macy’s this fall, and no one in the store gave him a second look, Rodriguez said.

Rodebaugh’s mother, who gave permission for the transplant, noting her son was an unexpected gift after she had been told she could not conceive a child, recently was shown a photograph of the surgical results.

“Patrick is beautiful,” she told the medical team.

“I am deeply grateful to my donor and his family,” Hardison said in a statement. “Even though I did not know who they would be, I prayed for them every day, knowing the difficult decision they would have to make in order to help me. I hope they see in me the goodness of their decision.”

[Image credits: Reuters, NYU]

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