Minnesota woman Lilly Ross’ husband, Calen Ross, was only 21-years-old when he killed himself in 2016. As Lilly ensured Calen’s legacy would live on by honoring his wish to be an organ donor, the young man’s face was used later that year when a man named Andy Sandness received a face transplant, one decade after a suicide attempt had left his face disfigured. Yet, it was only a few weeks ago when the widow and face transplant recipient met for the first time, with Lilly getting to touch her late husband’s face for the first time since he was alive.
According to a report from the Washington Post, Lilly Ross had mixed emotions ahead of her meeting with Andy Sandness, which took place in late October at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While she added that she might not have been ready to see Calen’s face on the man who received it via transplant, she later acknowledged that Sandness looked “really good” as they both embraced “like she had known him all her life.”
With both Lilly Ross and Andy Sandness sitting in the Mayo Clinic’s library, Ross got to touch the transplanted face and stroke the beard that had grown out of it.
“It feels really good,” Lilly commented.
As recalled by People, Andy Sandness was 21-years-old in Christmas 2006 when he tried to take his own life by shooting himself in the chin. The gunshot wound had left the Wyoming man without a nose and a jaw, and he spent the next few years wearing prosthetics that would often fall off. But in 2012, he joined the Mayo Clinic’s face transplant program, waiting four years until he was matched with a donor last year.
Calen Ross was of the same age as Sandness in 2016 when he shot himself, leaving behind his 19-year-old wife, Lilly, who was then eight months pregnant with their son. The Washington Post noted that Lilly Ross was later contacted by an organization in charge of organ and tissue donations and asked if she could help a man in need of a face transplant. She agreed, and that allowed Andy Sandness to undergo a 56-hour surgery at the Mayo Clinic and get a new face that belonged to a complete stranger, albeit one with lots of facial similarities. Both Sandness and Calen Ross were close in age at the time of their respective suicide attempts and were also similar in terms of skin tone and facial structure.
One year later, Lilly Ross and Andy Sandness’ first face-to-face meeting was shared in a video released by the Mayo Clinic. Like Lilly, Sandness admitted that it was an exciting moment, albeit one that didn’t come without its share of jitters beforehand.
“When you first do something like this, it’s just a big excitement to finally meet each other just to — I mean, the buildup is just so much. And then there’s anxiety and pressure.”
Sandness also got to meet Calen and Lilly Ross’ 17-month-old son, Leonard, who was with his mother so that he could “see how his father was able to help a stranger,” People wrote. While Leonard was initially reluctant to come up to Sandness, he eventually warmed up to the Wyoming man, waving at him and allowing himself to be picked up.
“He’s adorable, isn’t he?” Sandness remarked.
Meanwhile, everything appears to be going smoothly for Andy Sandness, despite the challenges that come with having a transplanted face. He is still taking anti-rejection medication on a daily basis, and performs facial massages to retrain his nerves. His speech continues to improve as he regularly recites the alphabet to himself while driving or showering, he’s now able to chew solid food again, and with his self-confidence now boosted, he’s gotten a promotion as an oil field electrician, and also started dating again. All in all, he’s happy “spreading [his] wings and doing the things [he] missed out on,” as he admitted in an interview with the Associated Press.
“It makes me extremely happy to know he’s going to be able to do what he wants in life now,” Lilly Ross added.
[Featured Image by Charlie Neibergall/AP Images]