Ten years ago, Andy Sandness tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the face. After miraculously surviving the horrific incident, the 31-year-old has received one the rarest surgeries in the world — a face transplant.
On June 16, 2016, 60 surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and others came together for the gruelling 56-hour surgery — a first for the Mayo Clinic. The face transplant included the nose, cheeks, mouth, lips, jaw, chin and teeth and came from a donor who was his age and also tried to kill himself, according to The Associated Press.
In June 2016, Calen “Rudy” Ross fatally shot himself in the head. His widow, Lilly, was eight months pregnant at the time. She carried out her husband’s wishes to be an organ donor.
Lilly met with a coordinator at LifeSource, a nonprofit that works with families in the upper Midwest to facilitate organ and tissue donation. Although Lilly was “skeptical at first,” she told the AP, because she “didn’t want to walk around and all of a sudden see Calen,” she was reassured the donor had his own eyes and forehead and would not be recognizable as her husband.
Two days before Christmas in 2006, Sandness was “super, super depressed,” he tells the AP, and grabbed a rifle from a closet. He put the barrel beneath his chin, pulled the trigger and knew right away that he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
When police arrived he said, “Please, please don’t let me die! I don’t want to die!”
Rushed from his home in Newcastle, Wyoming, he was treated at two hospitals before arriving at the Mayo Clinic.
It was there that Dr. Samir Mardini, a plastic surgeon whose specialty is facial reconstruction, told Sandness that he’d fix his face as best he could.
“I just need you to be strong and patient,” he told him.
Sandness had no nose, jaw and only two teeth. He wasn’t able to look at himself in the mirror and needed breathing and feeding tubes at first. But after eight surgeries (not including the face transplant) over four-and-a-half months, he returned home and began work at a lodge in the oil fields and as an electrician’s apprentice.
He says he was nothing like his old self. He avoided eye contact with young children at the grocery store so he wouldn’t scare them, had no social life and would sometimes lie and say he was in a hunting accident if people asked him what had happened.
“Those were real tough times for him,’ his father, Reed, told the AP. “He was insecure. Who wouldn’t be?”
In the Spring of 2012, Sandness received a call from Dr. Mardini who said the Mayo Clinic was going to launch a face transplant program and that he might be perfect for it.
Although Sandness knew their were major risks involved, he asked him, “How long until I can do this?”
Sandness underwent a rigorous psychiatric and social work evaluation to determine if he was a good candidate. After factoring in his resilience and motivation, along with his endless support from his family and friends, he was added to the waiting list of the United Network for Organ Sharing in January 2016.
“He wasn’t rushing us, and we weren’t rushing him,” Dr. Hatem Amer, Mayo’s medical director of reconstructive transplantation, told the AP. “He really understood what he was embarking upon.”
Dr. Mardini thought it would take five years to find a match, but just five months later he got the call about Ross.
The extremely complicated surgery was a “miracle,” according to Dr. Mardini.
“I said, ‘Andy, I’ve never lied to you. I’m telling you you’re going to be happy with what you see,’ ” he recalls. “He was quizzing me and the nurses all the time.”
Sandness says he realized the transplant was a success three months after the surgery when a little boy looked at him and didn’t appear scared. He now plans to work as an electrician and hopefully marry and have a family one day. He and Lilly, Ross’ widow, would also like to meet.
“Once you lose something that you’ve had forever, you know what it’s like not to have it,” he told the news outlet. “And once you get a second chance to have it back, you never forget it.”