Health and Science

He gets a new face; a hospital hopes for new business

Family members and friends of badly burned Mississippi firefighter Patrick Hardison are seeing him in a new way after he received a full face transplant from a New York bicycle mechanic.

Now the hospital where that surgery was performed on the 41-year-old father of five is hoping other potential patients will start seeing it as a go-to site for the groundbreaking operation. Just 30 people worldwide have received face transplants to date, and Hardison's was one of the most extensive.

Patrick Hardison
Source: Norman Jean Roy / New York Magazine

"This is the first face transplant that we've done," said Jim Mandler, spokesman for New York University's Langone Medical Center. "This is the first of what we hope will be many face transplants moving forward."

Watch a video about Patrick Hardison's full face transplant here.

A research grant from the NYU Langone Medical Center financed the painstaking Aug. 14 surgery by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, who removed the face of 26-year-old Brooklyn bike mechanic David Rodebaugh — see that man's story below — and transplanted it to the skull of Hardison.

Mandler said that all told, the costs from presurgery, surgery and post-surgery work totaled about $1 million.

"Face transplant is not an [Food and Drug Administration]-approved procedure, so all face transplants are done under research protocols," Mandler told CNBC.

But the more research that's done — and the more successes that are seen — the more Langone Medical Center and other hospitals that do the facial transplants are put on track to make a business out of the surgeries.

An article published this week by New York magazine details the events dating back to 2001 that led to the delicate operation on Hardison, who can now walk into a department store without children flinching in fear when they see his disfigured face.

A young boy Maxence, born with a right hand malformation, examines his new 3D-printed hand given to him by the Association for the Study and Assistance of Child Amputees (ASSEDEA) on August 17, 2015 in Cessieu.
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Hardison, who ran a burgeoning tire business in Senatobia, Mississippi, had his face horrifically burned on Sept. 5, 2001, when the then-27-year-old and other volunteer firemen responded to a house blaze. Hardison went into the home to look for a woman whose husband mistakenly believed was still inside when a ceiling collapsed on him, setting his face on fire.

"His face was smoking and flesh was melting off," fireman Bricky Cole told New York. "It was all char."

In the aftermath, Hardison underwent 71 surgeries over the course of a dozen years, and suffered continued pain that led to him developing an addiction to prescription medication as well as decreased vision that was a result of him having no eyelids, New York noted. Hardison's marriage fell apart, and despite restarting his tire business several years after he was injured, he ended up declaring bankruptcy and losing his home.

"I kept trying not to fail, but I couldn't beat it," Hardison told the magazine. "I felt like a failure."

"People don't understand how hard it is just to face the day," he said. "And it doesn't end. It's every day."

The story of the man who donated his face

Hardison caught a break after he became a candidate for a full facial transplant. "We're going to make you normal," Rodriguez told Hardison after meeting him, according to New York.

But first, another tragedy had to occur.

New York details how Rodebaugh came to be Hardison's face donor. Growing up as a rambunctious child in Ohio, where he skateboarded, snowboarded and performed tricks on BMX bicycles, Rodebaugh moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2009 and became a bike messenger, and later a bike mechanic.

Rodebaugh, one friend told the magazine, "had a brute macho" that attracted "beautiful girlfriends." The mechanic was on the way on his bike to meet one of those girlfriends this past July 22 when he hit a pedestrian who had walked out between two cars, and landed on his head after being thrown from his bike.

Rodebaugh later came out of a medically induced coma, but went into another coma days later. He was declared brain-dead Aug. 12.

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Two days after that, Rodriguez removed Rodebaugh's face — a process that by itself took 12 hours — and transplanted it onto the waiting Hardison, whose own face had been removed in preparation.

Rodriguez earlier had told Hardison that the operation had just a 50 percent chance of success.

"You have to understand: If it were to fail, there is no bailout option. You would likely die. This is a procedure that is all or none," Rodriguez told New York.

But Hardison later said, in a video detailing his story, that "Death never scared me one bit. ... There's a lot of things in life worse than dying."

Nine weeks after the operation, Hardison's children saw him, and his new face in a hospital room.

Read the New York article here.

See a related video here.

Read more about NYU's face transplant program here.