For nearly a decade, Andy Sandness shut himself away from the world. In late 2006, he put a rifle beneath his chin and pulled the trigger. He didn’t die; instead, the gunshot destroyed most of his face. Doctors tried to rebuild it, but there was only so much they could do; he was left with a quarter-sized mouth and a prosthetic nose that kept falling off. He shrunk from human contact.
Then, in mid-2016, Calen "Rudy" Ross shot himself and died in southwestern Minnesota. Ross, like Sandness, was an avid hunter and outdoorsman; at his funeral, fellow hunters were asked to wear their camouflage.
Lilly Ross, his widow, agreed to donate her husband's lungs, kidneys, and other organs. But she also agreed to a much rarer donation: her husband’s face. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic found that Ross and Sandness were a near-perfect match in age, blood type, skin color, and facial structure. They could have been cousins, surgeon Samir Mardini told the Associated Press.
"When I found out how he had passed, it gave me chills," Sandness told the AP.
Sandness had begun exploring a face transplant in 2012, and had been placed on a waiting list in early 2016. When Lilly agreed to donate her husband’s face, she was eight months pregnant. Despite worrying what it would be like to see Rudy’s face on a stranger, she reasoned that one day she’d want the couple’s child to understand how his father had helped another person. Thanks to the Rosses, Sandness would no longer hide from other people, or from mirrors.
“I wouldn't go out in public. I hated going into bigger cities," he told the AP. "And now I'm just really spreading my wings and doing the things I missed out on—going out to restaurants and eating, going dancing."
The operation—a first for the Mayo Clinic, though it was pioneered by a French team in 2005—required more than 60 medical professional working for 56 hours. When it was over, Sandness had his new face, but he’s had to work hard to acclimate to it.
Sandness, an oilfield electrician, takes medication every day to prevent his body from rejecting the transplant. He practices at training his nerves to work with his new face; he gives himself facial massages. At 32 years old, he recites the alphabet while driving and showering to improve his speech.
And now he’s finally met Lilly Ross. Before she saw Sandness, she worried that meeting him would be too much like seeing her husband; that she’d recognize something of Rudy in this other man. To her relief, she didn’t see that. She saw a man she’d helped. "It made me proud," Ross told the AP. "The way Rudy saw himself…he didn't see himself like that."
Their meeting offered Ross some measure of solace after a difficult year of grieving. Her young son, Leonard, born in the aftermath of her husband’s death, embraced the man who now wore his face. Ross choked up to describe it. “Meeting Andy, it has finally given me closure," she told the AP. “Everything happened so fast.”
Sandness told her: "I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted."
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