Space & Innovation

Firefighter Gets Face Transplant

More than 100 doctors, nurses and medical support staff took part in the 26-hour operation.

More than 100 doctors, nurses and medical support staff took part in the 26-hour operation on August 14-15 at the NYU Langone Medical Center after more than a year of preparation, it said.

The recipient was Patrick Hardison, 41, from Senatobia, Mississippi who suffered extensive facial burns as a volunteer firefighter, just days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Hardison was severely disfigured when the roof of a burning home collapsed on top of him during a rescue search. He lost his eyelids, ears, lips, most of his nose, hair and eyebrows.

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Eduardo Rodriquez led the surgery to give Hardison a new face, scalp, ears, ear canals, and selected portions of bone from the chin, cheeks, and nose, the medical center said.

He was given new eyelids and muscles that control blinking, as he was previously unable to shut his eyes completely, it added.

Hardison came to Rodriguez after more than 70 previous surgeries after a fellow fire fighter in Mississippi wrote to the doctor who performed an earlier face transplant in Maryland in 2012.

But he had to wait more than a year for a donor, someone with the right age, height, weight, skin and hair color and similar bone structure, and whose family would agree.

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- Great risk - That suddenly happened in August, when David Rodebaugh, a 26-year-old award-winning BMX cyclist who lived in Brooklyn, died in a road accident. His mother agreed to organ donation.

NYU Langone met the $850,000 to $1 million cost of Hardison's preparatory, surgical and rehabilitative care, similar to the cost of a liver transplant, said Rodriguez.

The doctor said he gave Hardison a 50:50 chance of success, because he wanted him to understand the "great risk in being listed for this experimental procedure."

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"This is not an operation for everyone, it's for very courageous individuals," he told a news conference.

Face transplants have become increasingly common since the first, partial face transplant was carried out by doctors in France in 2005 on a woman who had been mauled by her dog.

In March, Barcelona's Vall d'Hebron University Hospital said it had carried out what it called the world's most complex face transplant, reconstructing two thirds of the lower face of a 45-year-old man terribly disfigured by disease.

The same hospital in 2010 carried out the world's first full face transplant on a man who suffered an accident that left him without a nose and deformed his jaw and cheekbones.

Rodriguez said the New York operation would make future transplants safer and with better results, and proved that the entire scalp can be transplanted with the face.

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- Medication for life - The transplant of eyelids, in particular, "provides a great hope for individuals missing eyelids with vision," he said.

Rodriguez also said it was the most facial tissue that had been transplanted, stressing that removing all Hardison's damaged tissue was vital to making the results as normal as possible.

"I am deeply grateful to my donor and his family," Hardison said in a statement released by the medical center. "I hope they see in me the goodness of their decision. I also want to thank Dr. Rodriguez and his amazing team. They have given me more than a new face. They have given me a new life."

Three months later, he is starting to return to daily routine, but will remain on immune-suppressant medication for the rest of his life and will require monthly check-ups in New York.

His medication will be slowly decreased, and in January-February he is expected to undergo a further procedure to tailor the tissue around his eyes and lips, Rodriguez said. His speech will improve and although he still has a feeding tube, doctors are slowly increasing the amount of normal food that he is able to eat, Rodriguez added.

"He's doing very well for day 93."

This photo shows face transplant patient Patrick Hardison before(L) and after his surgery.