My dad joined the fire department the year I was born. I had grown up being a firehouse baby. There was nothing uncommon about finding me at the firehouse. On September 5, 2001, I was in the first grade. I woke up that morning, got dressed and went to school. It was a normal day. That is until around 1 p.m. that day. At 1 p.m., my life was thrown a curveball. The two-tone call went out, and my dad headed toward the station. He got his turnouts and got on the fire truck. My dad beat my uncle to the seat on the truck. The department was called out to assist the Love Fire Department with a structure fire. When they arrived on the scene, my dad was told a lady was inside. After being informed of that, he went inside to look for her. While he was inside the roof collapsed on top of him. It knocked off his helmet and burned his mask into his face. My dad's face was on fire. They literally sprayed him down with the hose. One of the firefighters on the scene held my dad as a paramedic inserted an IV in his arm. They didn't know who he was. His skin was literally melting off before their eyes. He was airlifted to the MED with a little chance of survival. As they were loading my dad up, the lady they thought was trapped in the house came walking up the street. She had been fishing at a nearby stream.
During the last 15 years, I have learned so much. I was 6 years old at the time of my dad's accident. Imagine being 6 years old and seeing your dad with a new face. It was hard. I was actually scared the first time I saw him after the accident. There were a lot of tears. There was anger. There was hate. I know I questioned God saying, "Why did this happen to my daddy?" My life was forever changed. In the last 14 years, my dad has undergone surgeries to help him feel normal again. We prayed and prayed for an answer. My dad was told he would completely blind within a few years because he didn't have eyelids to protect his eyes. After he was given that information, the search began for us to get answers.
Fast forward to August 2013 and our prayers were answered. In August 2013, my dad met Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez. Dr. R is the chair of the Hansjorg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. Dr. R has become family to us and we are forever grateful. In August 2013, they began running test to see if my dad would be a good candidate for a face transplant (I thought this only happened in movies). I was very skeptical when my dad mentioned this to me, because to me he was normal. We were told that the surgery was experimental and there was a 50 percent chance of him making it off the operating table alive. On August 8, 2014, my dad was put on the donor list. We were told that the surgery could happen at any time.
During the spring of 2015, we got the phone call about a donor. I drove home to see him off. My four younger siblings and I met him at this tiny airport in Batesville, Mississippi. There were tears. There was fear. But there was also hope. Hope that our lives were about to change forever. My dad arrived in New York only to realize that the surgery would be a no-go. The devastation was real, y'all. My dad came back home and the waiting game restarted. If you have ever known someone, or if you've ever played the waiting game, you know how exhausting it can be.
On August 13, 2015, I was sitting in my garage painting furniture for my apartment when my phone rang. It was my dad telling me that he had just received a phone call about a possible match. My dad grabbed his bags and headed to New York. When he got there, he was told the donor was a perfect match. Our perfect match was David Rodebaugh. Dave was 26 years old. He was a bike mechanic who had moved to Brooklyn, New York to further his career. He had recently won the Red Bull Minidrome event. After hearing the interviews of his friends and family, I could tell that Dave was the life of the party. He seemed to love life and everyone in it. His friends and family comment that he would ride his bike three miles in the snow just to help someone who needed it. Dave's mom also made the comment that Dave wanted to be firefighter when he was little, and now he has the chance to.
My dad's team of doctors, more than 100, led by Dr. R began surgery at 6 a.m. on August 14, 2015. The surgery had never been done before. Time was critical, as is time during any transplant. Surgery did not end until August 15, 2015. It lasted 26 hours. I was so relieved when I was told that my dad was in recovery.
After eight weeks in NYU Langone, my siblings and I were finally able to go to New York to see him. There were so many emotions going on during this time. I arrived in New York with my step-sister and best friend, Kendal, my dad's sister, and my dad's mom the night before my other siblings arrived. When we finally got off the plane and went to get our luggage, there was a camera crew waiting on us. They didn't want to miss of our reactions. Talk about stares, people were trying to figure out why I had a camera crew following me around the airport and asking me questions.
When we made it to the hospital, I remember Kendal grabbing my hand to hold it, but all I know is that when I got to my dad's room, I dropped Kendal's hand and walked in. I was in shock, but in a good way. He looked so good; I couldn't stop staring. The next day my siblings arrived and I prepped them before they went in. I held my half sister's hands and lead her the room (the boys didn't want to hold my hand). When they saw him, we all started to cry. After everyone settled down and the camera crew left, we talked about the similarities dad had with all the kids. It's very apparent that my dad now looks like my youngest half-brother.
We also had to keep quiet about his surgery until Thanksgiving week, which was also the week that dad came home! We couldn't even have pictures of him on our phones because we didn't want them leaked to the media. This surgery broke medical history, and we wanted the hospital to be the first ones that announced it. It was hard keeping it a secret, but we also did it to give our dad time to heal. The day he came home was a whirlwind. Some of dad's friend planned a homecoming parade for him thru our town. We had the VIP treatment. We had a police escort to and from the airport in a limo. We had a camera crew there. We held signs that we had made. We wore fire helmets. People waited in baggage claim just to see what we were up too. Needless to say, when we saw his boots on the escalator we all started to cheer and cry.
The day his story went out was crazy. It was Sunday night and by Monday morning, his face was everywhere. That whole week was a whirlwind. Every time I went somewhere people would stop me and say, "I think I saw you on television," and I would laugh and say "You did," and then I went on about my business. Not long after my dad's story was released, "Nightline" released their story on it. It was by far my favorite. Juju, Ben, Iggy and everyone else, thank you. "Brave Face" was beautiful. You all did an awesome job. I will never be able to thank you all for all your hard work that you put into it! I still get tears when I watch the piece. Click here to watch Brave Face: Special Edition on Nightline.
This week marks a year since my dad's surgery. He's still recovering from the extensive surgery. The swelling continues to go down. My dad hasn't had a rejection. He has had to have a few procedures and some that aren't as minor within the last year. We still have a ways to go, but we are closer than we were a year ago.
I was talking with my dad recently and I asked him, "What is one thing you've learned in the last year since your surgery?" His response was simple. "Enjoy life," he said.
A piece of me will always be in New York. I am forever grateful for my family there. Dr. R, Leslie, Nicole, Margy, Aileen, Dr.Hazen, Dr. Gelb, Brittany, Dyan, Dr. Jahanamist, "LiveOnNY" and so many others that I know I'm forgetting, thank you for everything you do and have done to get us to this place. I am so grateful and I will never be able to repay you.
During this last year I have learned to never give up, you're stronger than you think, don't let other people's words get to you, and most importantly, live life to the fullest because we aren't promised tomorrow. I recently told Dr. R, "You never know how good you have it until you talk to someone who has it worse. My bad day is someone else's good day. Be thankful for what you have because there can always be something worse going on in your life".
Never give up, keep fighting. You are stronger than you believe.
For NY Magazine's story, click here.