NEW YORK (WABC) --A firefighter is opening up one year after undergoing a pioneering face transplant.
Pat Hardison was battling a house fire in Mississippi in 2001 when the roof collapsed on top of him. He had to undergo 72 painful surgeries over the years, but he never looked "normal" and always stayed inside. But in 2015, doctors at NYU-Langone Medical Center performed the life-changing procedure.
The father of five, now 42, was a volunteer firefighter at the time. And now, he has eyelids, feeling in his face, hair and a beard he has to shave.
His eyes made it through the fire, but without eyelids, he had to sleep with them open for 14 years.
PHOTOS: Before and after firefighter's face transplant
His new face came from a 27-year-old Brooklyn man named David Rodebaugh, who died in a bicycle accident. It was a good physical match, one that turned Hardison's life around.
"I went into Macy's that day, and nobody stared and looked, and I was like, how blessed is that?" he said. "I was just that normal guy walking through the store. I hadn't had that in 14 years. It was amazing."
He recently went to Disney World with his entire family, and he is forever grateful that Rodebaugh's mother made the decision to donate her son's face.
"Her son was going to be a firefighter, so when she heard that, she never hesitated," he said. "I can't express the gratitude enough. It's amazing. And I don't think she acknowledges what she has given myself and my family, especially my kids. She's given us our life back. She lost her only child."
And his family is just as appreciative.
"People don't stop and stare, there's no children that are screaming and crying or running away," wife Alison Hardison said. "He blends in, and in a world where everybody tries to be different, he just wanted to be normal. And now, he has that normalcy."
The surgeon discussed the groundbreaking operation.
"It goes all the way behind the back of the head, and it extends up the hair line," Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez said. "So when you look at the incisions, everything is concealed below the shirt and in his hair line. And that's why there are no incisions around his ears, around his eyelids. On the inside of the mouth, it's inside the lips and inside the nose."
The surgery took hours and required thousands of stitches inside his nose, inside his mouth and around his entire neck. He was given a 50/50 chance of surviving.
"I knew I would make it through," he said. "God's kept me here for a reason; I'm not going to die on an operating table. This was just another surgery."
This was the first, most extensive and most successful of its kind. Doctors say that one of the things that saved Hardison's life during the fire was the fact that he tightly closed his eyes and held his breath, which saved his eyes and his lungs.