On Aug. 14, 2015, Patrick Hardison underwent the first extensive face transplant in the world 14 years after suffering severe burns that claimed most of his visage in a fire.
Fifteen months after the surgery, “everything has changed,” Hardison, a volunteer firefighter who lost his face during a 2001 rescue mission, tells PEOPLE. “I’m able to drive, go swimming with my kids — little things like that I haven’t been able to do for 15 years.”
On Nov. 7, Hardison got the chance to meet the woman responsible for his second chance at life: Nancy Millar, the mother of his donor, David Rodebaugh, who died of brain trauma sustained in a cycling accident.
“Without her it wouldn’t have been possible,” says Hardison, 42, who went through the risky procedure led by Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. “It’s like she’s family. We connected that easily. I’m just very grateful.”
PEOPLE sat down with Millar, who opened up about her son, why she had “no hesitation at all” to donate his organs and face — and how it felt coming face to face with the man who received her son’s face.
“I have to make sure he lives on forever,” Millar, 55, says.
A Mother’s Grief
“David was the sweetest, nicest, funnest guy — I mean, just always having fun. Sunshine; always happy,” says Millar, about her son, David Rodebaugh. “My son was my rock, my hero, my idol, my protector.”
A New York City transplant, Rodebaugh worked as a bike messenger and bike mechanic in Brooklyn and competed in BMX racing, even winning a Red Bull-sponsored event in 2014. But last summer, Rodebaugh, 26 at the time, died after doing what he loved. While riding his bike home from work, he swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian and landed on his head. On Aug. 12, 2015, he was pronounced brain-dead, and his heartbroken mother had a decision to make.
Millar chose to donate her son organs, including kidneys, liver and heart — and even his face.
“I said, ‘You better save his face. He has the face of a porcelain doll.’ And he’s a donor — we had talked about it,” she recalls. And through LiveOnNY, an organ donation organization, a perfect match was found in Hardison, who had begun looking into face transplantation as a treatment option in 2012.
Inside Her Heartbreaking Decision
“Hands down, no question,” Millar says of her choice to donate her only son’s face. “I’ve seen scarring; I’ve been through it.”
Indeed, Millar had a friend who had lost most of his face in a fire — and says she suffered serious injuries to her own visage years earlier.
“[When] I was 18 years old, I was hit by a drunk driver. My tire came through the floor of my car,” says Millar, who sustained brain trauma. “My whole face, half of it was gone: I had lacerations over my eye, I couldn’t see; I had a slash from [my cheek], all the way up over my ear. I had hole in my chin I could stick my tongue through.”
Eventually, Millar says she decided to undergo plastic surgery to repair her disfigured countenance — and she had a request for the doctor in the operating room.
“Blood and guts don’t bother me at all,” Millar says. “I said, ‘Can I watch the surgery? I can handle it.’ I was so intrigued by the talent and what they did: If I watched it all, I would know how to care for it at home afterwards … I watched the surgery in a mirror, just like a birthing mirror.”
Knowing personally how life-changing a face-repairing procedure can be, Millar “had no hesitation at all” when her son died.
“That is why I donated the face,” she says. “I think by watching my own surgery and being able to look at it in the mirror, I wasn’t afraid of it. It did not bother me that they were going to peel my son’s face off. It didn’t bother me one bit.”
Leaving a Legacy for Her Son
“I miss my son so much,” says Millar. “I would do anything to trade places with him.”
Millar sees donating Rodebaugh’s organs as a way to honor his life.
“You can’t take your money with you, you can’t take your house and car with you — and why do you wanna take your body with you if you can help somebody else?” Millar says of her decision to donate. “A lot of people think that I’m crazy for doing what I did, but look what happened: I knew it would work.”
On Nov. 7, Millar also got to meet the recipients of Rodebaugh’s kidneys and heart — but sitting down with Hardison was particularly special.
“This was like giving birth to a child today,” Millar says of meeting the people whose lives her son’s sacrifice saved. “The best day of my life was the day David was born. This is the second-best day of my life: To know that my son could save so many people? That was his dream.”
Millar says she sees her son’s spirit in Hardison, the man who received his face.
“When I met Patrick, I saw this strength, this strong, manly, burly kind of energy in him — that David had,” she says. “David wanted to be a firefighter, an I knew if this guy was a firefighter — he was willing to walk into a fire to save people and risk his own life — then he had the strength that David had.”
Helen Irvin, President & CEO of LiveOnNY, says meeting Hardison was another one of Millar’s wishes.
“It was very important to bring them all together so she could come full-circle and really see the gift that David had left behind for everyone,” Irving says Millar, who recently battled cancer. “She’s gone through a tremendous amount this last year … this means a great deal to her to see this gift that she’s been able to give through her son.”
In one of the emotional encounter’s more moving moments, Millar had a single request for Hardison.
“I said, ‘Can I kiss your forehead?’ ” Millar recalls. “That’s the one thing I wanted to do because every night before David went to bed when he was little, I kissed his forehead. … It’s almost like he’s my son, but he’s closer to my age, so he’s a brother. We’re gonna be friends forever.”
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Friends — and, she says, beacons of hope.
“This world needs a whole lot more love,” Millar says through tears, adding she plans to start a foundation in her son’s name to help those with traumatic brain injury, starting by advocating for kids and cyclists to wear helmets. “So Patrick and I are gonna spread love together and try to save some lives.”