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Burned firefighter feeling normal again 1-year after rare face transplant

Click to play video: 'Burned firefighter feeling normal again 1-year after rare face transplant' Burned firefighter feeling normal again 1-year after rare face transplant
WATCH ABOVE: It’s been one year since Mississippi firefighter Pat Hardison got a face transplant. Dr. Jon LaPook sat down with him to check in on his progress that doctors say is unbelievable – Aug 24, 2016

A Mississippi firefighter who received the world’s most extensive face transplant after a burning building collapsed on him said Wednesday that he feels like “a normal guy” for the first time in 15 years.

Patrick Hardison, 42, said he can now eat, see, hear and breathe normally, thanks to last year’s surgery. He has a full head of hair and hits the gym twice a week.

READ MORE: Transplant gives new face, scalp to burned firefighter

“Before the transplant, every day I had to wake up and get myself motivated to face the world,” Hardison told reporters at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“Now I don’t worry about people pointing and staring or kids running away crying. I’m happy.”

WATCH: Severely burned firefighter doing ‘great’ following most recent face transplant operation

Click to play video: 'Severely burned firefighter doing ‘great’ following most recent face transplant operation' Severely burned firefighter doing ‘great’ following most recent face transplant operation
Severely burned firefighter doing ‘great’ following most recent face transplant operation – Aug 24, 2016

Hardison was a volunteer firefighter in Senatobia, Mississippi, when a building collapsed on him in 2001. He had 71 reconstructive surgeries before the transplant.

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While there have been nearly 40 face transplant surgeries since 2005, Hardison’s was the first to include a scalp and functioning eyelids. Doctors have since fixed up some features and removed his breathing and feeding tubes.

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This undated photo provided by the family via the New York University Langone Medical Center in November 2015 shows David Rodebaugh. The 26-year-old New York artist and competitive bicyclist was a facial transplant donor for volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison. Rodebaugh had died of injuries from a biking accident on a Brooklyn street. (Family Photo/Courtesy of NYU Langone Medical Center via AP).
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This combination of photos provided by the New York University Langone Medical Center shows Patrick Hardison before and after his facial transplant surgery in New York. Hardison was burned Sept. 5, 2001, in Senatobia, Miss. A 27-year-old father of three at the time who’d served for seven years as a volunteer firefighter, he entered a burning house to search for a woman. The roof collapsed, giving him third-degree burns on his head, neck and upper torso. (Mary Spano/Eduardo D. Rodriguez/Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery/NYU Langone Medical Center via AP).
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This combination of Aug. 15, 2015 to Nov. 11, 2015 photos provided by the New York University Langone Medical Center shows the recuperation of Patrick Hardison after his facial transplant surgery in New York. Hardison was burned Sept. 5, 2001, in Senatobia, Miss. A 27-year-old father of three at the time who'd served for seven years as a volunteer firefighter, he entered a burning house to search for a woman. The roof collapsed, giving him third-degree burns on his head, neck and upper torso. (Mary Spano/Eduardo D. Rodriguez/Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery/NYU Langone Medical Center via AP).
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Former Mississippi firefighter Patrick Hardison, 42, center, speaks during a press conference marking one year after his face transplant surgery, Wednesday Aug. 24, 2016, at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York. Hardison was disfigured while trying to save people from a house fire in 2001 and received the face of a Brooklyn cyclist who died in an accident in July 2015-- a surgery successfully perform by a team of doctors at NYU Langone. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews).

Hardison has no scars on his face, and although he resembles his old self, some of his features are different. His eyes are smaller and his face is rounder, but he still has sandy brown hair.

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“I don’t get up and look in the mirror and focus on that,” he said. “I get up and just go along with my day.”

READ MORE: Boy with double-hand transplant praised as ‘remarkable’ by doctors

The divorced father of five said one of the best moments of his life was seeing his children for the first time after the August 2015 surgery. Four of his children attended the news conference.

His 21-year-old daughter, Alison, said she cried after seeing him because she was so relieved.

“I walked into the room and I was just speechless,” she said. “He gave me a hug and our cheeks touched, and his cheeks were kind of warm, and that was something I hadn’t felt in 14 years.”

She said her father “wasn’t normal on the inside” before the surgery.

“He was very unhappy,” Alison Hardison said. “Now he’s happy with himself and happy with life.”

READ MORE: Chimp victim’s body rejecting face transplant

Patrick Hardison can finally drive and live independently thanks to his new field of vision. Previously, he could see only through “pinholes” because doctors had sewed his eyelids partially shut to protect his eyes, he said.

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Eduardo Rodriguez, chairman of Langone’s plastic surgery department, said Hardison has not had any issues with transplant rejection, which is due to his medications, his children and his strength.

“He’s a remarkable individual,” Rodriguez said.

The surgery is estimated to cost about $1 million, according to NYU, but the hospital covered the cost. Rodriguez was recently awarded $2.5 million from the Defense Department to continue face transplant research.

Hardison said he hopes to meet this fall with the family of his donor, a 26-year-old artist who died in a bike accident in Brooklyn.

“I’d like to say that I’m the same old Pat, but that would not give enough credit to the amazing journey I have gone through this past year,” Hardison said. “The road to recovery has been long and hard, but if I had to do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

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