Widow meets man with her husband's face after transplant

Two people linked by an extraordinary facial transplant procedure have had an emotional meeting in Minnesota.

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Lilly Ross was introduced to Andy Sandness, the 32-year-old man who now has her late husband's face.

Mrs Ross, whose husband Calen "Rudy" Ross died in 2016, reached out and touched Mr Sandness' face, prodding the rosy cheeks and eyeing the hairless patch on his chin she once had known so well.

"That's why he always grew (his beard) so long - so he could try to mesh it together on the chin," she told Mr Sandness.

Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Mr Sandness the face that had belonged to Mr 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.

The two came together last month in a meeting arranged by the Mayo Clinic, the same place where Mr Sandness underwent a 56-hour operation, marking the first time the facility had performed such a procedure.

With her toddler Leonard in tow, Mrs Ross strode toward Mr Sandness, tears welling in her eyes as they tightly embraced.

Before the meeting, Mrs Ross had been fearful of reminders of her husband, who took his own life.

But without Calen's eyes, forehead or strong cheekbones, Mr Sandness did not look like him, she said.

Instead, she saw a man whose life had changed through her husband's gift, newly confident after 10 years of hiding from mirrors and staring eyes.

"It made me proud," Mrs Ross said of the 32-year-old Mr Sandness. "The way Rudy saw himself ... he didn't see himself like that."

Mr Sandness and Calen Ross lived lives full of hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors before their struggles consumed them, 10 years and hundreds of miles apart.

Mr Sandness shot himself under the chin in late 2006 in his native Wyoming, destroying most of his face.

Mr Ross shot himself and died in south-western Minnesota a decade later, aged just 21.

Calen Ross, left, and Andy Sandness, right, before his transplant. Picture: Courtesy Andy Sandness, Lilly Ross via AP

By then, Mr Sandness had receded from contact with the outside world, ashamed of his injuries.

Surgery to rebuild his face had left him with a tiny mouth, and his prosthetic nose frequently fell off.

Hope arrived in 2012 when the Mayo Clinic started exploring a face transplant programme, and again in early 2016 when he was wait-listed for the procedure.

Mrs Ross had already agreed to donate her husband's lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients in need.

Then, LifeSource, a Midwestern non-profit organisation which facilitates organ and tissue donations, broached the idea of a donation for a man awaiting a face transplant at the clinic.

Mr Ross and Mr Sandness' ages, blood type, skin colour and facial structure were such a close match that Mr Sandness' surgeon, Dr Samir Mardini, said the two men could have been cousins.

Mrs Ross consented, despite her hesitation about some day seeing her husband's face on a stranger.

Eight months pregnant at the time, she said one reason to go forward was that she wanted the couple's child to one day understand what his father did to help others.

More than a year after a surgery that took a team of more than 60 medical professionals, Mr Sandness is finding his way in everyday life, while still treasuring the simple tasks he lost for 10 years, such as chewing a slice of pizza.

He has been promoted in his work as an oilfield electrician and is expanding his world while still prizing the anonymity that comes with a normal face.

"I wouldn't go out in public. I hated going into bigger cities," he said. "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."

Life with a transplanted face takes work, every day. Mr Sandness is on a daily regimen of anti-rejection medication.

He is constantly working to retrain his nerves to operate in sync with his new face, giving himself facial massages and striving to improve his speech by running through the alphabet while driving or showering.

"I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted," Mr Sandness told Mrs Ross.

Dr Mardini and the rest of Mr Sandness' medical team have delighted in seeing their patient and friend open up since the procedure, going out of his way to talk with strangers whose gaze he once hid from.

"It turns out Andy is not as much of an introvert as we thought," Dr Mardini said. "He's enjoying these times, where he's missed out on 10 years of his life."

Mrs Ross and Mr Sandness say they feel like family now. They plan to forge a stronger connection, and Mr Sandness said he will contribute to a trust fund for Leonard's education.

On the day of their meeting, the boy stared curiously at Mr Sandness at first. But later, he walked over and waved to be picked up. Mr Sandness happily obliged.

For Mrs Ross, just meeting Mr Sandness felt like a huge release - a way to get past a year filled with grieving, funeral planning, childbirth and difficult decisions about organ donation.

"Meeting Andy, it has finally given me closure," she said. "Everything happened so fast."

- AP


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