By Ellen Arkfeld
Congratulations to the excellent team at NYU Langone Medical Center! We are inspired by the team’s unique medical achievement of the most extensive face transplant and proud of the contribution of one of our honorable GBI Board of Directors’ members, Dr. Bruce Gelb.
NYU Langone Medical Center has announced the success of the first full-face transplant. The surgery is also the first of its kind to be performed on a first responder. The patient, Patrick Hardison, is a firefighter who suffered from third degree burns across his face after a roof suddenly collapsed during a rescue search. The accident left him without any normal tissue left on his face.
The surgery was led by Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, head of plastic surgery at NYU Langone. Hardison had undergone 70 surgeries in other states before he was brought to Dr. Rodriguez’s attention by a friend. Dr. Rodriguez said, “When I met Patrick and heard his story, I knew I had to do all I could to help him.”
In order to help him, Dr. Rodriguez organized a team to perform the most extensive face transplant procedure to date. A transplant of this scale carries a considerable risk for rejection compared to smaller-scale procedures. But Dr. Rodriguez stresses the importance of a full-face transplant, stating that, “We feel as a team that it is absolutely essential to remove all of the scars and get down to healthy tissue in order for a patient to be normal. And being normal is defined as normal function and normal appearance.” This has certainly been true for Hardison, who has regained his ability to speak and swallow as well as his eyesight, and can now live with a normal appearance because of the procedure.
The procedure lasted for 26 hours and involved a team of more than 100 physicians, nurses, and technical and supportive staff. The team worked in two groups: one group procured the face from the donor. The donor was a young artist from Ohio named David Rodebaugh who had donated his organs, and was matched with Hardison through LiveOnNYC.
The other team was responsible for Hardison’s procedure. Previous face transplants involved stitching parts of skin, lips, bones, muscles and blood vessels onto a patient. This procedure involved a single graft that included ears and ear canals, several bony structures, and 3D printed structures to ensure that the graft would fit. Perhaps most significantly, this surgery is first time that a donor’s eyelids and the muscles that control blinking were transplanted. Prior to the procedure, Hardison had been in danger of losing his sight because his eyelids could not close all the way. Dr. Rodriguez said that this is a major achievement and it could be used to preserve vision in future patients.
The surgery showed immediate signs of success: the hair on Hardison’s scalp and face began growing back immediately, and he was able to use his eyelids and blink only three days after the procedure. Now, after three months of recovery, he is beginning to return to daily life independently. He is continuing rehabilitative therapy, including physical therapy, speech and swallowing therapy and occupational therapy to re-learn tasks that he has not performed in 14 years, like shaving his face. Dr. Rodriguez says that, “The fact that we were able to perform this and the patient was able to come out of the operating room safely is a very important historic event.”
Hardison thanked the donor and the team that performed the procedure, saying, “They have given me more than a new face. They have given me a life!”
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