Tearful meeting between woman and man who received face transplant from her dead husband
Andy Sandness pulled the trigger, and immediately knew he had made a terrible mistake.
It was two days before Christmas in 2006 and Mr Sandness, then 21, had been drinking too much in his rural Wyoming home, and battling depression. He took a rifle out of the cupboard, placed the barrel under his chin, and fired.
Against all odds he survived, telling the arriving police officer, as he cradled him in his arms: “Please, please don’t let me die! I don’t want to die!”
Ten years later, and 500 miles east from Wyoming, another 21-year-old also pulled the trigger.
Calen “Rudy” Ross killed himself in rural Minnesota in June 2016, leaving behind his 19-year-old wife Lilly, eight months pregnant.
Ross had designated that he wanted to be an organ donor, and so his heart, lungs, liver and kidneys could be donated.
But additional screening determined he could do even more: He was a good match for a man awaiting a face transplant – Mr Sandness.
“I was skeptical at first,” said Mrs Ross. “I didn’t want to walk around and all of a sudden see Calen.”
But she was reassured the donor had his own eyes and forehead, and would not be recognisable as her husband. After consulting with her husband’s best friend, she gave her consent, and the 56-hour operation was carried out in late June 2016.
Last month, Mrs Ross came face-to-face with the man now wearing her husband’s face.
"I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted," said Mr Sandness, as he hugged a tearful Mrs Ross in photos published on Friday.
Mrs Ross touched his face, relieved that he did not resemble her late husband – except for a small hairless patch on his chin, where his facial hair didn’t grow.
"That's why he always grew it so long, so he could try to mesh it together on the chin," she explained.
Mr Sandness told her how he shared her late husband’s love of hunting and fishing in the wilderness; Mrs Ross was astonished at how similar their attitudes were.
And from spending a decade afraid of mirrors, reclusive and avoiding the frightened stares of children, Mr Sandness is now rediscovering life.
“Those were real tough times for him,” said his father, Reed. “He was insecure. Who wouldn’t be?”
Now he has been promoted in his work as an oilfield electrician, and able to eat normal food again – previously his distorted mouth meant it was impossible to chew.
"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."
Mr Sandness, one of only around a dozen people believed to have received a face transplant, is on a daily regimen of anti-rejection medication and must constantly work to retrain his nerves to operate in sync with his new face.
But he now has a future to look forward to.
"It made me proud," said Mrs Ross, adding that she wanted her son, Leonard, to know that his late father had a big, generous heart.
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, who is starting a trust fund to contribute to the boy’s education, happily obliged.
"Meeting Andy, it has finally given me closure," said Mrs Ross, her voice choking as it trailed off.