|BMX cyclist David Rodebaugh|
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.
Rodebaugh died in July when he crashed and hit his head while riding in Brooklyn. He was 26 -- virtually the same age as Hardison was when he was injured.
The years following that accident were full of dark times for the young firefighter.
He underwent more than 70 surgeries that involved multiple grafts from his leg to his face but he was still very disfigured -- with "no semblance of normal anatomy" as Rodriguez put it -- and had to hide behind sunglasses and a baseball cap whenever he went out. Every time he tried to chew or talk he was in tremendous pain.
A friend at Hardison's church heard about the work Rodriguez had done at the University of Maryland Medical Center for another man whose face had been injured and contacted the surgeon on his behalf. Hardison became a patient of Rodriguez's while at UMMC and continued to work with him when he was subsequently recruited to join NYU Langone.
The procedure, which the hospital estimated cost anywhere from $850,000 to $1 million, was funded by a grant from the NYU Langone.
In a 26-hour operation on Aug. 14, Rodriguez and a team of more than 100 other doctors, nurses and helpers, were able to give Hardison a new face. Unlike previous face transplants, which involved delicately stitching parts of another person's skin, lips, bones, muscles and/or blood vessels onto a patient, this surgery involved a comprehensive graft of both the front and back of the head that was described as a kind of "hood" and included the scalp, ears and ear canals, and parts of the bone from the chin, cheeks, and an entire nose. Surgeons were also able to replace Hardison's eyelids, including the muscles that control blinking.
The university said that just three months after the surgery -- a critical period when most rejections occur -- Hardison is "doing well and is quickly returning to his daily routines."
“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."The world's first partial face transplant was performed in 2005 in France on a woman who lost her lips, cheeks, chin and most of her nose after she was mauled by her dog. The first full face transplant took place in 2010 in Spain.