Face transplants are still a relatively new medical procedure—in the past 10 years, doctors have performed fewer than 30 operations. Now former Mississippi firefighter Patrick Hardison has received the most extensive face transplant ever completed. 

While attempting to rescue a woman he believed was trapped in a fire in 2001, Hardison sustained third degree burns across his entire face and scalp. For the past 14 years he’s lived without ears or eyelids, and a severely disfigured nose and mouth. His face transplant came after 71 surgeries that aimed to reconstruct his face, including one that grafted skin from his thighs onto his head.

Hardison waited on the donor registry for more than a year to receive a full face transplant. The right donor needed to not only match his blood type, but his skin tone and hair color. Just when he was beginning to lose hope, Hardison received the news this past August that his match had been found.

Over the course of 26 hours beginning August 14, doctors painstakingly attached the face of 26-year-old David Rodebaugh, who was fatally injured in a cycling accident, onto 41-year-old Hardison’s skull. The team of surgeons at NYU Langone Medical Center, led by Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, succeeded in transplanting more facial tissue than had ever been used in this type of procedure before. At the time of the surgery, Rodriguez's team said the procedure had a 50-50 chance of success, and even afterward, there are plenty of risks involved. According to Rodriguez, Hardison will likely have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. 

It’s been three months since the operation, and Hardison can now speak and express himself using his new face. He can even blink his eyes, something he hadn’t been able to do in over a decade. The procedure is a milestone for the medical community and for facial surgery candidates around the world, but according to Rodriguez, more registered donors are needed before the operations can become a regular occurrence.

According to Mic, Rodebaugh's mother reportedly told LiveOnNY, the organ donor match organization that facilitated the facial transplant, that her son had always wanted to be a firefighter. "David was born a miracle. … He was born to be a star. He will always be a star, and the miracle of David will live on."

[h/t: Mic]