Ten years ago, Wyoming man Andy Sandness was overcome with depression and attempted to take his own life. He would survive this suicide attempt but was left with a severely disfigured face after shooting himself in the head. But after an amazing face transplant surgery, Sandness now has the face of another man — someone who also turned a gun on himself at 21-years-old, but didn’t get to survive.
According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, Andy Sandness had reached the lowest point in his life in December 2006, drinking heavily and dealing with severe depression. Two days before Christmas, Andy got a rifle from a closet, loaded it up, placed it underneath his chin, and pulled the trigger. But, as he related, he regretted this decision the moment the gun went off, begging for his life when police arrived at the scene.
“I was going through some rough times and, you know, I mean, I made the wrong choices,” said Sandness in a video produced by the Mayo Clinic and quoted by the Mirror.
After being attended to at two local hospitals, Sandness ended up at the Mayo Clinic, where he would be treated by plastic surgeon Dr. Samir Mardini, then a “newcomer” at the reputed medical facility. Despite the painstaking processes involved in trying to restore Sandness’ face, the young man from Wyoming was left without a nose and a jaw, with almost all his teeth missing, and had required breathing and feeding tubes soon after the first few operations.
With face transplants still years away from becoming a reality, Sandness returned to his hometown of Newcastle, Wyoming, after receiving eight surgeries in his four-and-a-half-month stay at the Mayo Clinic. He was warmly welcomed by friends and family and was able to find employment, but he related that he found it hard to deal with children asking their mothers why his face was disfigured, sometimes lying to them that he had been injured in a hunting accident. He also encountered taunts regarding his appearance, which forced him to oftentimes “retreat to the hills” to engage in his favorite hobbies – hunting and fishing.
Face transplant surgery exceeds patient Andy Sandness' expectations – Sky News https://t.co/uEn9LZyyUe
— Tribune U.K. News (@Tribune_UK) February 18, 2017
When the Mayo Clinic’s Mardini called Sandness in 2012 to inform him that the clinic was preparing to unveil a face transplant program and that he may be a potential candidate for an operation, he was excited. However, the doctor tried to set Andy’s expectations, informing him that “only about two dozen” such operations have been done around the world, and that he would have to consider the risks and the prospect of taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. But Sandness patiently waited for about four years before being informed that he would be on the waiting list for a face transplant, and he was willing to deal with the risks therein.
“When you look like I looked and you function like I functioned, every little bit of hope that you have, you just jump on it, and this was the surgery that was going to take me back to normal.”
The Chicago Tribune wrote that Mardini expected that Andy Sandness would have to wait up to five years before the right donor was found. Instead, it took only five months, when a young widow decided that it was okay to donate her late husband’s face to anyone who may need a transplant.
Like Sandness was in 2006, Calen Ross was only 21-years-old in 2016 when he shot himself in the head, this time fatally. And it was up to his pregnant widow Lilly, then 19-years-old, to carry out his wish to become an organ donor should he pass away. Having Calen’s lungs, kidney, and liver donated was no problem for Lilly, but she was reluctant when she was informed that her husband’s face may be transplanted onto that of another man.
“I was skeptical at first. I didn’t want to walk around and all of a sudden see Calen.”
Lilly Ross agreed to the operation after being told that Andy Sandness still had his own eyes and forehead and therefore wouldn’t be recognizable as the man she had so recently lost.
It took 56 long hours for Mardini and his team to perform the face transplant on Sandness, which began late in the evening of June 16, 2016. And it was quite the intricate and precise operation, as doctors had to spot nerve branches on both faces – Andy’s and Calen’s – and using electric currents to stimulate those branches and determine whether they’re used for actions such as opening and closing eyes or smiling. And when the surgery was over, the verdict was in – according to Mardini, it was a “miracle.”
Three weeks later, Andy Sandness was finally allowed to see his new face. This made for a very “tearful, hard-to-hold-back time” for him and his family, and a very grateful man willing to make the most out of his new, much-improved situation.
“Once you lose something that you’ve had forever, you know what it’s like not to have it. And once you get a second chance to have it back, you never forget it.”
Nearly eight months after the operation, Andy Sandness is now 31-years-old and hopeful for the future. He hasn’t gotten any curious stares or cruel taunts from people around him, and, in his words, he’s happy to be “just another face in the crowd.” He’s also reached out to the widow of his face transplant donor, telling Lilly Ross that her late husband Calen is “still going to continue to love hunting and fishing and dogs – through me.”
[Featured Image by Charlie Neibergall/AP Images]