Pat Hardison was doing his job as a volunteer fireman when he entered a burning building on September 5, 2001. He had no idea that moment would change the way people would look at him for years to come.

According to USA Today, the Tennessee father’s face was burned beyond recognition — he was left with no ears and eyelids when his helmet and mask melted on his head.

He had more than 70 burn-related surgeries, but his life was drastically changed because of his appearance. He faced years of having fingers pointed at him, people staring and making cruel comments, and being asked “what happened” over and over.

After enduring years of hurt, Hardison was given more bad news in 2011 — his eye doctor told him his missing eyelids were causing him to lose his vision.

But the bad news opened the door to another major change in his life, one for which he was willing to risk everything.

The dad learned about a risky face transplant surgery. He had his chance to have his face transformed when a donor, David Rodebaugh, was declared brain dead after a cycling accident and his mother donated his skin.

Rodebaugh’s mother, Nancy Millar, decided to donate her 26-year-old son’s organs, including his face, giving Hardison a new life. She explained:

“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.’ [I had] no hesitation at all because we had talked about it.”

As People magazine reports, Rodebaugh matched all of the specifics needed for Hardison’s facial surgery, including skeletal shape, blood type, and skin and hair color.

So Hardison went for it, hoping to become one of the success stories that came out of the reconstructive surgery.

Hardison said:

“The only surgery close to mine was attempted in France and the patient died. I knew all that before I went in, but I was willing. All or nothing, that’s what I wanted to do. I bet it all. I never wanted to back out. I had been miserable for 14 years by this time. Death is not the worst thing that can happen. I told the doctor that, I’d rather be dead than live like I was.”

In August of 2015, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez led more than 100 medical professionals during the 26-hour surgery, during which time the face transplant that included his skull and most of his neck was performed.

The surgery was a success, and it created a new beginning for the father of five. Hardison said:

“Everything has changed. I’m able to drive, go swimming with my kids, little things like that I have been’t able to do for 15 years.”

Hardison was even able to take a long overdue family vacation with his kids without having the whispers and finger pointing happening.

He explained:

“I can go places with my kids now. I went to Disney World last year and it’s the first time my two little boys had been anywhere where people didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ and all that stuff. They could tell something had happened, but nobody ever looked at me and said, ‘He got a face transplant.’ They just couldn’t tell it.”

The dad thanked donor families as the guest speaker at the Mid-South Transplant Foundation and Mid-South Eyebank’s Celebration of Life, telling them:

“The donors and the families, you can’t imagine the thank you’s and gratitude that people like me owe you all for that gift. All I can say is, thank you,”

He also got to personally thank Millar when the pair met in person one year after his surgery.

She was able to touch her son’s skin once again, and see her child’s birthmark on Hardison’s face. She kissed the skin on his forehead just like she used to do when he was a small boy.

Hardison said, “It’s like she’s family. I’m just very grateful.”

Watch the father discuss his journey below:

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