Face transplant helps man with second chance at life

February 17, 2017 01:43 PM

A long journey that brought two lives together, men who had never met but shared much in common -- a love of the outdoors, hunting and both struggled with their inner demons.

In 2006, two days before Christmas, Andy Sandness tried to kill himself. He pulled the trigger and knew instantly he had made a mistake, pleading with first responders to save him.

"Imagine not having a face, not having a nose, not having parts of your cheek, your mouth barely functions," described Dr. Samir Mardini, a plastic surgeon.

The 21-year-old woke up in the mayo clinic in Rochester, Minn. Mardini said he could help but the plastic surgeon promised no miracles.

Eight surgeries later, Sandness was able to go home, but he had a prosthetic nose that kept falling off and his mouth, was the size of a quarter.

"You avoid looking at little kids because you are afraid you are going to scare them. Stuff like that, it hurts," admitted Sandness.

He found solace in hunting, and kept mostly to himself.

Years later, a call gave Sandness something that had been missing -- hope. His doctor said he was being considered for a face transplant.

"That was the happiest day of my life," recalled Sandness.

However, that happiness would be tied to another family's tragedy. Calen Ross and his wife, Lilly, were expecting their first child together. However, like Sandness 10 years earlier, Ross had made a decision to end his life. He fatally shot himself last June at the age of 21.

"He was my high school sweetheart," recalled Lilly Ross.

Ross was listed as an organ donor. The donor organization, LifeSource, asked his wife to consider something else -- his face.

She was worried the recipient would resemble her husband. She was reassured he wouldn't.

"The reason I decided to go ahead and go through with it was so that I can later down the road show Leonard what his dad had done to help somebody," she explained.

That somebody turned out to be Sandness, a perfect match.

Three years before Ross’s death, Dr. Mardini and the mayo team began practicing for the hospital's first face transplant, done only a few dozen times in the world.

Doctors also had to make sure Sandness was the right candidate. His suicide attempt was one of the considerations.

"I don't think there's anybody who doesn't deserve a second chance. It's just a matter of whether you feel the patient has reached a point where they realized whether they made a mistake," noted Mardini.

The call came in June 2016. For 56 hours, Mardini and a team of about 60 carefully removed Ross's face, bones, nose, lips, even his teeth and grafted them onto Sandness.

"It's just a miracle that we were able to offer this gift to Andrew," remarked Mardini.

It would be three more weeks before Sandness, surrounded by family, was allowed to look in a mirror. Unable to speak, he scribbled a few words.

"Far exceeded my expectations," he wrote.

"You don't know how happy that makes us feel," Mardini beamed.

After months of speech and physical therapy, Sandness no longer dreads looking in a mirror.

"My mind and body have finally accepted my new changes," he explained.

However, he has to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life.

Recently he got a letter from Ross' family so he could know more about the young man who gave him a second chance. He wrote back: "He’s still going to continue to love hunting, fishing and dogs, through me."

No longer haunted by his past, Andy Sandness is able to look forward to his future.

"I can go out and I feel 100 percent normal," he admitted.



(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)