Face Transplant Recipient Patrick Hardison Gets Kiss from His Donor's Mother in Tear-Filled First Meeting: 'It's Like She's Family'

"I've been waiting a year to meet her. I'm just very grateful," Hardison says of meeting Nancy Millar, his donor's mother

Earlier this month, Patrick Hardison came face-to-face with the woman who gave him a second chance at life.

Hardison, a volunteer firefighter, suffered severe burns that badly disfigured his face during a 2001 search and rescue mission through a blazing house fire. Last year, he underwent the first extensive face transplant after David Rodebaugh, a 26-year-old Brooklyn bike mechanic and BMX racer, died after sustaining brain trauma in a cycling accident. Rodebaugh’s mother, Nancy Millar, made the difficult decision to donate her son’s organs — including his face — and changed Hardison’s life forever.

On Nov. 7, Hardison got to thank Millar in person for the first time in New York City during a very emotional meeting. PEOPLE was there to capture the special moment and speak to both Nancy and Patrick, now friends who will be connected forever.

A Mother’s Grief

“David was the sweetest, nicest, funnest guy — I mean, just always having fun,” says Millar, about her son, David. “Sunshine; always happy.”

Sadly, their lives were tragically turned upside down when, on August 2015, as Rodebaugh was riding his bike home from work, a pedestrian walked out in front of him. Swerving to avoid the collision, he flew off his bike and landed on his head. On Aug. 12, Rodebaugh was pronounced brain-dead, and his mother had what for most would have been a difficult decision to make.

But for Millar, the choice to donate David’s face (as well as his kidneys, liver and heart) came easily, and from the heart.

“Hands down, no question,” she says. “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.” ThroughLiveOnNY, an organ donation organization, Rodebaugh’s face was found to be a perfect match with Hardison’s.

Courtesy Allison Hardison

A Man’s Second Chance at Life

Two days later, on Aug. 14, 2015, Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez — the chair of the Wyss Despartment of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York — wheeled Patrick Hardison into an operating room and, during a 26-hour surgical procedure, fitted Rodebaugh’s face to Hardison’s head.

“Patrick’s procedure included the largest amount of soft tissue that’s ever been transplanted in medicine. Not only from the front of the face but also the ears, eyelids, nose, lips, skin of the neck and hair-bearing scalp,” Dr. Rodriguez says of the risky procedure, which has only a 50 percent survival rate.

Hardison — who had lost his hair, ears, eyelids, nose and lips in the 2001 blaze —had no hesitations. By this time, his vision had started deteriorating due to complications with his eyelids, but more than that, he wanted to return to some state of normalcy, especially for his children: Alison, 22, Dalton, 19, Averi, 17, Braden, 13, and Cullen, 12.

“I had lived without a face for 14 years,” says Hardison, 42. “You get up every day of your life for 14 years hating the way you look, and you’ll do whatever it is to change — and that was what I wanted to do.”

In the 15 months since his surgery, Hardison has shown no signs of rejecting the transplant. “Everything has changed,” he says of his post surgery life. “I’m able to drive, go swimming with my kids — little things like that I haven’t been able to do for 15 years,” adds Hardison, who also enjoyed a family vacation to Disney World this summer, their first vacation since his accident.

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

Christian Witkin

An Emotional Meeting

Face to face with recipient of her son’s face for the first time on Nov. 7, Millar had just one sweet request for Hardison.

“I said, ‘Can I kiss your forehead?'” Millar says. “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.”

Hardison says he wasn’t nervous about meeting Millar—more than anything, he just wanted to say thank you.

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

Millar agrees that the two will always share a special bond — and she already senses her son’s spirit in Hardison.

“My son was my rock; he was my hero, my security, my protector. I see all of that in Patrick,” she says. “It’s almost like he’s my son, but he’s closer to my age, so he’s a brother. [Meeting him] was like giving birth to a child. We’re gonna be friends forever.”

LiveOnNY President & CEO Helen Irving hopes their story inspires others to consider organ donation. “To see the gift that she’s been able to give through her son means a great deal to her,” Irving says of Millar. “It was really important to bring them all together so she could could come full-circle and really see the gift that David had left behind.”

For Hardison’s family, Rodebaugh and Millar’s sacrifice has literally been the gift of a lifetime.

“Dad’s been given a gift to have a second chance at life — and that’s what he’s doing,” says Hardison’s daughter, Alison. “It’s so bittersweet because you know in order to get to that point that someone else has had to lose a loved one. But in return, you get a miracle. That’s exactly what Dave was: Dave was our miracle.”

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