In a sign we may be living in times that had once existed only in the minds of science-fiction writers, surgeons from NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City have successfully transplanted an entire human face. The 26-hour surgery—performed in August on a volunteer firefighter whose face was severely disfigured in the line of duty in 2001—required a support team of more than 100 specialists as part of the most extensive face transplant to date and the first ever in New York State.
Three of the eight plastic surgeons at the frontlines of the historic procedure are residents of Westchester. Chappaqua’s Daniel Ceradini, MD, helped remove the face of the donor, David Rodebaugh of Brooklyn, who died in a cycling accident at age 26. At the same time, Jamie Levine, MD, and David Staffenberg, MD, both of Scarsdale, helped prepare 42-year-old Patrick Hardison for the transplant, which included not only attaching the face, scalp, eyelids, and blinking muscles, but also removing the damaged skin and exposing blood vessels, to re-establish blood flow.
The face-transplant team at NYU Langone Medical Center
Staffenberg says that to succeed, the procedure required near-perfect coordination. “We couldn’t get too far ahead of the donor surgery, and we couldn’t waste any time either.” He adds that because the patient’s safety is always paramount, the groundbreaking operation also required extensive preliminary measures. “With so many physicians and steps involved, the team rehearsed this transplant for many months, performing 14-hour surgeries on cadavers so that we could provide the best possible care for Patrick.”
It also took many months to do the research necessary to ensure that Hardison was the ideal candidate and that the donor was not only a good transplant match but also matched the firefighter’s skin tone and hair color. “Another medical first,” says Staffenberg, who also practices at the NYU Langone facility in White Plains, “is that we used CAT scans to create 3D cutting guides that we could place on the donor’s and patient’s bone structures, to make sure the surgeries were engineered for a perfect fit.”
Patrick Hardison, prior to his 2001 accident (left) and David Rodebaugh, the donor, from Brooklyn (right).
Even before the surgery was complete, doctors could see Hardison’s new lips and ears grow pink with fresh blood. His new hair and beard began to grow immediately, and within three days, he was able to blink.
“The idea of a face transplant may seem like science fiction, but each of us performs these same techniques every day,” Staffenberg says. “When all of our individual expertise is put together on a team, it becomes an incredibly transformative force.”
Like all transplant patients, Hardison will require regular checkups and be on anti-rejection medication the rest of his life. Still, the former first responder can’t help but feel reborn.
“I went to Macy’s to get clothes, and I was just another guy; nobody [was] pointing or staring. I wasn’t scaring any kids,” Hardison said in a recent interview. “It’s just… it’s very emotional to have that.”