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How The First Extensive Face Transplant Helped a Burn Victim Reclaim His Life: ‘Now I’m Just a Normal Guy — There’s No Staring’

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Last fall, for the first time in 14 years, Patrick Hardison was just another face in the crowd.

“The day I got out of the hospital, I needed a few things, so I went to Macy’s,” Hardison, 42, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I could tell the difference right then. Nobody was staring, nobody was saying anything. I was just there.”

It may sound like an everyday errand run, but for Hardison, that shopping trip in October 2015 was the moment he began to reclaim his life. Having lived with a disfigured visage since he suffered severe burns in a 2001 accident, the volunteer firefighter underwent a groundbreaking and risky procedure last year — the first extensive face transplant in the world — to save his vision and return to some sense of normalcy.

Indeed, “Now I’m just a normal guy,” Hardison says. “There’s no staring, there’s no kids running off crying — that means everything.”

Christian Witkin

In the new issue of PEOPLE, Patrick opens up about the harrowing rescue mission that left him disfigured, the painful years that followed and how the life-threatening procedure brought him our of a dark depression and gave him a new lease on life.

A Tragic Accident

Hardison was a tire salesman, father of three and “a jokester and a people person” before the accident, says his ex-wife Chrissi Hardison, 41. “He was a hard worker, a provider, and he loved being around his friends at the fire department. It was a big part of his life.”

But the Senatobia, Mississippi, native’s life would never be the same after Sept. 5, 2001.

“I was at work, and the call came in,” Hardison says, “so I went down to the firehouse, got in the truck, went to the fire and start doing what we were doing. It was a normal day.”

During that seemingly routine rescue mission, Hardison and his crew were in a blazing house, searching for a woman trapped inside, when the ceiling collapsed on him. One of the last things he remembers is his protective mask melting onto his face.

Courtesy Hardison Family

When he woke up in the hospital, his face completely covered in bandages, “I knew I was hurt,” Hardison says. “But I didn’t know how bad it was.”

When the bandages came off six months later, he and his family learned just how bad it was: Hardison had lost his hair, ears, eyelids, nose and lips in the fire.

“Your dad goes to work one day, and the next time you see him, he’s a completely different-looking person,” says 22-year-old daughter Alison Hardison, who was just 7 when she saw her father for the first time after his accident. “His voice was the same, but he looked totally different. It was very traumatic.”

Traumatic for Alison, as well as her younger step-siblings, Dalton and Averi, 4 and 2 at the time, respectively.

“The kids were scared of him in the beginning,” recalls Chrissi. “That was hard for him.”

A Deep Depression

Hardison faced many challenges after the accident. One of the most difficult was losing his independence, having to rely on family members to help him eat and get him to doctor appointments because he could no longer drive. Then, there was the pain: In addition to recovering from the accident, Hardison underwent more than 70 surgeries and skin grafts to partially repair his eyelids, mouth, nose and other parts of his face. (Over time, he developed a painkiller addiction, which he has since overcome.)

  • For more on Patrick Hardison and his life since the first extensive face transplant, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Wednesday.

“There was a big personality change,” adds Chrissi, who welcomed two more children with Hardison (Braden in 2003, then Cullen in 2004) before the couple split in 2008. “He became more introverted and withdrawn because no one could understand what he was going through. He was so angry.”

So when Hardison learned there might be hope to change his appearance, he jumped at the chance.

“I had lived without a face for 14 years,” he says. “You get up every day of your life for 14 years hating the way you look, and you’ll do what ever it is to change — and that was what I wanted to do.

A Chance at Hope

In 2012, Hardison was told that he would eventually go blind due to complications with his eyelids. Upon this revelation, one of his friends, as well as a longtime doctor, referred him to Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, a plastic surgeon and face transplantation specialist who performed the procedure that year. After meeting with Dr. Rodriguez, Hardison was determined to pursue the surgery.

“There are worse things in life than death. It doesn’t scare me,” says Hardison. “It was for my kids.”

But his decision to risk his life on the risky procedure — doctors only offered a 50 percent survival rate — weighed heavily on his children.

“I had to explain to them: ‘There’s a difference between living and existing. Since the accident, he had existed — but not really lived,'” says Chrissi. “He did not want to have to deal with going blind and not watching his kids grow up.”

Adds his daughter Alison: “I was like, ‘Dad, why do you want to do this? You’re perfect to us.’ And he said, ‘I’m not, though. I want to look normal when I walk you down the aisle.’ ”

Courtesy Hardison Family

A Groundbreaking — and Life-Changing — Procedure

In August 2015, Hardison got a call from Dr. Rodriguez that LiveOnNY — an organ donation organization that matches donors and recipients — had found a perfect match for Hardison. Two days earlier, David Rodebaugh, a 26-year-old bike mechanic and BMX racer, died in New York on Aug. 12 after sustaining brain trauma in a cycling accident in Brooklyn; his mother, Nancy Millar, 55, agreed to donate his organs, including his face.

“I said, ‘You better save his face. He has the face of a porcelain doll. He’s healthy, he’s an athlete, every single bit of him is healthy — and he’s a donor,” Millar tells PEOPLE. “[I had] no hesitation at all because we had talked about it.”

David matched all the super-specific criteria necessary for the planned procedure — including blood type, skeletal shape and skin and hair color — and on Aug. 14, 2015, Hardison was wheeled into the operating room at NYU Langone Medical Center for the 26-hour surgery.

About 40 face transplants have been performed worldwide, but “Patrick’s procedure includes the largest amount of soft tissue that’s been transplanted in medicine,” says Dr. Rodriguez, chair of the Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. “Not only the front of the face, but also the ears, eyelids, nose, lips, skin of the neck and hair-bearing scalp.”

A New Life

Eight weeks after the surgery, Hardison’s kids visited him in the hospital, and the entire family felt a sense of relief.

“I kissed his cheek,” recalls Alison. “His cheeks were warm, and he blinked his eyes. That’s something I had not felt or seen for 14 years. He’s been given the gift to have a second chance at life — and that’s what he’s doing.”

Indeed, “It’s a whole new life for him, something he thought would never happen,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “The biggest thing is seeing his level of independence. His personality has changed a bit because now he no longer is as restrained as before.”

Hardison has shown no signs of rejection, and today, 15 months after his surgery, “Everything has changed,” he says. “I’m able to drive, go swimming with my kids, little things like that I have been’t able to do for 15 years.”

This summer, he even took his five kids — Alison, 22, Dalton, 19, Averi, 17, Braden, 13, and Cullen, 12 — to Disney World for their first family vacation in years.

Courtesy Allison Hardison

“It was so much fun to be able to actually do things like that as a family again,” says Alison.

Adds her father: “Just a year and a half ago, I didn’t know there was going to be a better tomorrow. You have to keep hope alive,” Hardison says. “My children are the reason I’m alive today.”

His children — and, of course, Nancy Millar and her son David Rodebaugh’s sacrifice. On Nov. 7, Hardison got the chance to meet Millar in New York for the first time since the surgery.

“Without her, it wouldn’t have been possible,” he says. “It’s like she’s family. We connected that easily. I’ve been waiting a year to meet her. I’m just very grateful.”

Adds LiveOnNY President & CEO Helen Irving: “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.”

Now, as he faces the future, Hardison hopes to move on with his life and career, hopefully inspiring others as a motivational speaker.

“I want to share my story with wounded warriors, first responders and the average person who has no hope and is injured like I was,” he says. “I didn’t have any hope. Now I’ve got a new outlook on life. You have to push through the bad times to get to the good ones.”