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Medicine

The moment a widow touched the face that once belonged to husband who killed himself

Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Andy Sandness the face that had belonged to Calen ‘Rudy’ Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to donate her high school sweetheart’s visage to a man who lived nearly a decade without one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 11:52am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 11:05pm

Lilly Ross was “terrified” but “excited” to meet the man who had been given her husband’s face.

Calen “Rudy” Ross had killed himself in 2016, but in death had given a gift to others – his lungs, his kidneys, his face. And although she admitted she probably wasn’t quite ready, Ross braced herself to see a part of her husband that was living on.

“You look really good,” she told Andy Sandness, embracing him like she had known him all her life.

“Thank you so much,” he responded.

As the two sat together in a hospital library, Ross reached out and touched the face that once belonged to her husband.

“I’m going to close my eyes,” Sandness said.

The young widow started to laugh, lightly stroking Sandness’ beard.

“It feels really good,” she said.

The powerful moment was captured on video late last month at the Mayo Clinic.

Watch: Tearful meeting for two linked by face transplant

It was at that hospital where, more than a year ago, Sandness underwent a nearly 60-hour surgery, becoming the clinic’s first face transplant recipient.

Now he was back – meeting his donor’s widow, face-to-face, for the first time.

“When you first do something like this, it’s just a big excitement to finally meet each other just to – I mean, the build-up is just so much,” Sandness said in a video released by the Mayo Clinic.

“And then there’s anxiety and pressure.”

Sandness and Calen Ross had numerous things in common.

Both men loved spending time outdoors, hunting and fishing.

Both also struggled with similar thoughts and feelings that ultimately brought them to the same dark place.

In 2006, when Sandness was 21, he put a bullet through his chin, maiming most of his face. The Wyoming native survived.

A decade later, in June 2016, when he, too, was 21, Ross shot and killed himself in Minnesota.

His wife was 19 at the time – and eight months pregnant with their son.

Soon after her husband’s suicide, she was asked by an organisation that arranges organ and tissue donations if she might help a stranger who was awaiting a face transplant.

Attempts to repair the damage to Sandness’ face had likely saved his life; but for many years since then, he had been in hiding, left with a mouth no larger than the size of a quarter and nothing more than a prosthetic nose that would often fall from his face.

“I wouldn’t go out in public; I hated going into bigger cities,” he said.

His doctors had found him an almost perfect match for a new face: The two men were close in age and had similar skin tone and facial structures.

The young widow knew she needed to say yes.

In the summer of 2016, a medical team replaced Sandness’ “nose, upper and lower jaw, palate, teeth, cheeks, facial muscles, oral mucosa, some of the salivary glands and the skin of the face (from below the eyelids to the neck and from ear to ear),” the Mayo Clinic explained.

“The surgical team used virtual surgical planning technology and 3D printing to optimise the aesthetic and functional outcomes of the surgery.”

Samir Mardini, the lead surgeon, said the surgical team used cutting guides that they would clip onto the bones in the face to get a precise fit.

“They would give us the exact location of the cut, exact angle of the cut, so when we took the donor’s face and put it on the recipient, it would fit perfectly,” he said in the video released by the clinic.

Although the thought of seeing her husband’s nose, his chin and his smile on a man she did not know was difficult, Ross said yes because she wanted her son to one day see what his father had done for others.

Sixteen months later, Sandness got the opportunity to say thank you.

“I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted,” he told Ross.

The two sat in a library at the Mayo Clinic, flipping through photo albums.

Ross pointed out the resemblances and differences in two men who share the same face.

“It looks amazing,” Ross said.

“You can see Rudy with the chin because you can’t grow hair in the middle, too.

“And he’s got the flushed cheeks, and he’s got a little mole on his nose. Otherwise, I see Andy. I don’t see much of Rudy in him.”

But Sandness said he sees the resemblance in his donor’s young son.

“He’s adorable. Are you kidding me?” Sandness said of the toddler.

Ross said she is proud of her husband for donating his organs.

“This is where we get to actually see the difference in how much he actually helped somebody,” she said.

And Sandness said that he will be forever grateful for the help.

“I don’t know that you can ever say enough thanks for what they’ve given me,” he said. “I mean, Lilly, it’s an unbelievable … it’s an unbelievable gift. There just, I mean, you can’t … you can’t give enough thanks. You can’t give enough money. There’s nothing you can do. Except now I can just show them.”

Since the transplant, Sandness said, his speech is improving, and he is able to chew solid food again.

He’s received a promotion at his job as an oilfield electrician, and he’s started dating.

“Now I’m just really spreading my wings and doing the things I missed out on – going out to restaurants and eating, going dancing,” he said.

Ross said, “It makes me extremely happy to know he’s going to be able to do what he wants in life now.”