Thursday, November 19, 2015

Finding kindness in perilous times -- Nov. 19, 2015 column


Every year on World Kindness Day -- Nov. 13 -- people in about two dozen countries help oldies cross the street, hold doors for one another and think warm thoughts. How nice.

This year, though, terrorists attacked Paris, killing at least 129 people.  

The horrific acts left us all reeling. But the thugs did not kill kindness. Kindness is so much more than the occasional display of good manners.

Three days after the Paris attacks, an inspiring news story involving a brave first responder, a dedicated surgical team and a grieving family rocketed around the world. 

What connected the three was robust, life-changing kindness.

On Sept. 5, 2001, Patrick Hardison, then a 27-year-old volunteer firefighter in Senatobia, Miss., was trying to rescue a woman from a burning house.

“Just like every other fire…we went in looking for a lady,” he told ABC’s “Nightline.”
This time, the roof collapsed onto his head, knocking off his helmet. He felt his mask melting.

He lost his eyelids, ears, lips and most of his nose as well as his hair and eyebrows. His appearance frightened his own children. And the woman he’d been told was trapped inside the burning house? She was fine – not even home at the time.

After enduring more than 70 surgeries that still left him badly disfigured and in pain, he had all but given up when he was referred to Dr. Eduardo D. Rodriguez, a pioneering reconstructive surgeon. He is now chairman of the plastic surgery department at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.  

Rodriguez, a Miami-born child of Cuban immigrants, started out as a dentist and attended medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University before graduating in 1999.

He evaluated Hardison for a face transplant and found him an excellent candidate. Hardison was more than willing, even with only a 50-50 chance of surviving the operation. They needed a face.

Then came a remarkable act of kindness by strangers.

David P. Rodebaugh was just 26 when the bicycle he was riding in Brooklyn, N.Y., slammed into a pedestrian and he was thrown to the ground, hitting his head. Rodebaugh was not wearing a helmet.

Rodebaugh was an artist and bicycle mechanic. “A free spirit,” his mother called him. He had signed an organ donor card, but the operation is so rare that few of us ever imagine our face might be transplanted. His mother recalled that her son had always wanted to be a firefighter and gave her permission.

The family donated his liver, kidneys and both eyes to help other patients. 

Rodriguez’ team -- doctors, nurses, tech and support staff – had practiced for a year to hone their skills before attempting the heroic surgery. Using Rodebaugh’s face, Rodriguez and a medical team of more than 100 performed a 26-hour surgery, the most extensive face transplant surgery ever, on Aug. 14.

Its success was announced Nov. 16 at a news conference at NYU Langone, which paid for the transplant operation, estimated at $850,000 to $1 million.

“You only have one chance to land the Rover. The same goes with the face,” Rodriguez told Reuters, referring to NASA’s landing of the Rover spacecraft on Mars.

Because of the kindness of Rodebaugh’s family and the dedication of Rodriguez and his team, Hardison has a new face. After years of wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, he can finally walk outside without being stared at.

He’s still having rehab therapy but hopes to be home in Mississippi for Thanksgiving, he told the Associated Press. His next goal, if he regains his sight as another benefit of the surgery, is to start driving again.

In a time of sorrow in Paris and fear in the United States and around the world, the story reminds us that human kindness is indomitable.   

“I am deeply grateful to my donor and his family,” Hardison said in a statement. “I hope they see in me the goodness of their decision.”

This Thanksgiving, thank a first responder. A police officer.  A member of the military. A doctor, nurse or another medical professional. They deserve our thanks and appreciation every day.

Terrorists may strike, but they cannot murder kindness unless we let them. And we don’t need Kindness Day to be kind or Thanksgiving to be grateful.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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