Patrick Hardison was just a 27-year-old volunteer firefighter responding to a call. A house was on fire in his small Mississippi town and he needed to save a woman trapped inside.
But as he searched for her, the roof collapsed and the blaze burned his entire face, including his lips, eye lids and ears.
Doctors saved his life, but not his face.
When he returned home after spending 63 days in the hospital, he couldn't look in the mirror. He had no desire to see what was left.
That's how Hardison lived for 14 years. And as doctors described it, "living this way is not living."
Most people would have given up after so many years, but Hardison got a second chance when he met Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, an internationally recognized plastic surgeon, who had completed one of the most extensive face transplants to date.
"The type of injury that he had, there was no more that they could do to help," said Rodriguez, now chairman of New York University Langone Medical Center's plastic surgery department.
Rodriguez saw something in Hardison. He told NBC News he saw courage, commitment and responsibility, all the traits that make a perfect candidate for a face transplant. But the road wouldn't be easy. He would have to undergo lots of testing to make sure he was ready physically and psychologically.
Even if he passed the testing and found a donor, the surgery would be so complex, his chance of surviving was 50 percent.
But this father of five was ready to take that chance.
"I always felt he was the right person for this surgery," Rodriguez said.
It was the tragic death of a free-spirited young Brooklyn man that helped Hardison to start living again.
David Rodebaugh was 26. He was an artist and bicycling enthusiast. He won several BMX cycling competition, helping him gain a following of loyal friends and admirers. But on July 22, he crashed his bike and died of his injuries.
Rodebaugh was an organ donor and a perfect match for Hardison. They shared a similar complexion, weight and size and had the same blood type. Along with his other organs, Rodebaugh's family agreed to donate his face.
On Aug. 14th , Rodriguez started the most extensive face transplant yet. A team of nearly 100 medical professionals started by removing Rodebaugh's scalp and face, including his eye lids, the most delicate part of the procedure. It was then attached to Hardison. Doctors had to connect blood vessels, shape the nose and chin.
After 26 hours, they were successful. Hardison had a new face.
"It has to be shocking," Rodriguez said, describing the first time Hardison saw himself in the mirror.
Now 88 days out of surgery, Hardison is doing well and adjusting to the new face, doctors said Monday at a press conference in New York. Hardison, who is still recovering, was not at the event.
Doctors remind him that even though he looks different, his voice and personality remain the same.
It's also been more evidence that doctors are getting better at face transplants.
"This procedure is here to stay," he said.
Their ultimate goal is to get so good at this surgery, that patients don't have to stay in the hospital as long.
In the meantime, Hardison will undergo more surgeries to perfect his face as the swelling goes down. He'll also continue taking anti-rejection medicine, which will eventually be tapered down. But doctors say he has already passed a true test of success — clothes shopping in New York, without a single stare.
NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar contributed to this report