Last August, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez performed the most extensive face transplant operation ever.
In the 26-hour operation, which took place at New York University Langone Medical Center, the dentist-turned-plastic-surgeon and his team removed the face and scalp of a young victim of a fatal accident and successfully grafted the tissue onto the head of Patrick Hardison, a firefighter who had been horribly burned in a 2001 fire.
The operation showed in dramatic fashion just how far organ transplantation has come since its start in 1954, when surgeons at Brigham Hospital in Boston took a kidney from one man and gave it to his twin.
In the six decades since then, doctors learned how to transplant not just kidneys but also hearts, lungs, livers and other “solid” organs. Now they’re transplanting faces, hands, arms, uteruses, penises and other body parts that ― unlike solid organs ― are made up of multiple tissues, including blood vessels, muscle and bone.
“It is an exciting time, and the future of organ transplantation continues to evolve,” Rodriguez told The Huffington Post in an email.
Rodriguez wants face transplantation to become the “standard of care for individuals in need.” But this will happen only if some major obstacles are overcome. The high cost of these procedures is one: Who will pay for operations like face transplants, which in the case of the injured firefighter cost an estimated $1 million?
Then there’s the matter of encouraging donations not only of organs but also faces and other body parts that seem more personal. Adults can sign up to become organ donors after death (agreements commonly shown on driver licenses), but so far faces and other composite body parts are donated by deceased individuals’ family members.
“Families sometimes refrain from donating their loved ones’ face because they are afraid to possibly see their deceased family member in public,” Rodriguez said. “However, we researched this area of concern and found that a transplanted face actually blends the two identities to create a new appearance that is unique to the face transplant recipient.”
In any case, Rodriguez applauds the generosity of the family of the man whose face became Hardison’s. He’s also appreciative of Hardison, whose compliance with follow-up care has been key to his recovery ― and whose willingness to go public about his experience has brought new attention to transplant surgery.
“Simply put, Pat is a hero,” Rodriguez said. “By sharing his story, he has given so much hope to those who need it, and has shown the true impact organ donation has had on himself and his family.”
Rodriguez has fans of his own. In a message to HuffPost, Hardison called his doctor “one of a kind” before adding, “He’s family to me.”
Read more about how Rodriguez performed the most extreme face transplant surgery.