— -- An encore presentation of this report will air on "Nightline" on Dec. 26 at 12:35 a.m. ET.
Pat Hardison, the former volunteer firefighter who received the most extensive face transplant ever performed, was given a hero’s welcome when he returned home Sunday night to Senatobia, Miss.
Hardison, 41, whose face was severely burned in a house fire 14 years ago, was greeted by hundreds of people cheering and holding signs that said “Welcome Home” when he arrived back in town for the first time since having the surgery three months ago.
“Nightline” has been following Hardison’s story for the past nine months. A surgical team at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, led by renowned reconstructive surgeon Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, performed the surgery in August. The surgery was estimated to cost $1 million and was done pro-bono.
The face transplant surgery was such a risky procedure that Hardison’s doctors warned him that he only had a 50-50 chance of surviving it. But it was a risk he was willing to take for the chance to get his life back and feel normal again.
Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET
In 2001, Hardison was 27 years old when he was on a rescue mission inside a burning home. The ceiling collapsed on top of him and he lost his scalp, ears, eyelids, nose and lips because of severe burns. His entire face was gone.
Over the next decade, Hardison underwent more than 70 surgeries to try to rebuild his mouth, nose and other parts of his face using skin grafts. He even got implants to help anchor prosthetic ears. But without eyelids, Hardison’s doctors told him he would eventually go blind.
In 2012, at the urging of a friend, Hardison sent his medical records to Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, a pioneering reconstructive surgeon who had just completed the most extensive face transplant ever performed at the time. The 2012 surgery, which involved replacing the patient's face, jaw and tongue, had been a success and Rodriguez was looking for his next patient.
Rodriguez and his team began the process of vetting not just Hardison, but his family, friends and neighbors in Mississippi. Rodriguez wanted to make sure that Hardison fully understood the surgical risks, the physical and psychological recovery, and the possibility that his body could reject the transplant and he could die. He also wanted to make sure Hardison was of good character and would be compliant with his post-surgery responsibilities, including medical appointments and daily medicine intake.
When the evaluations were finished, Rodriguez said he had found the perfect patient.
“Here's a guy with a huge personality who just wants to get to the solution,” Rodriguez told “Nightline” in a previous interview. “He's very gung-ho individual, you can see it. It's his nature and he was ready to sign whatever it took to move this thing along. For patients like that, which we do value, it's important for us to kind of slow the process down and ensure that they completely understand what they're getting into.”
It took more than a year before a donor that fit all of the criteria – including having similar skin color and skeletal structure to Hardison – was found. LiveOnNY, the organ procurement non-profit organization that matches organ donors with patients in and around New York City, helped find the donor.
The donor, David Rodebaugh, was an accomplished BMX rider who was living and working in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he hit his head in a bicycle accident and was later declared brain dead. His mother agreed to not only donate her son’s face, but his heart, liver, kidneys, corneas, bone and skin tissue, all of which went to other patients.
The face transplant surgery took 26 hours. Nine days later, Hardison saw himself in the mirror. He had lips, ears, a nose and eyelids for the first time in 14 years.
Three months since the surgery, Hardison is still recovering. While he is still getting used to his new face, Hardison said he hasn’t forgotten about the donor who made it all possible.
“That donor and his family gave me this gift, and I can never thank them enough for giving me something as great as this, something I thought I would never have,” he told “Nightline” in a previous interview.