Where Are They Now: A Sight Worth Seeing

In a surgery that spanned more than 50 hours in the summer of 2016, a multidisciplinary Mayo Clinic team completed a near-total face transplant on Andy Sandness, a Wyoming man whose face was devastated by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 21. The life-changing surgery has improved Andy’s ability to eat, speak, breathe, smell and be just another face in the crowd. But that was just the start of his transformation.

Finding His Voice

For 10 years following his injury, Andy was a recluse — ashamed of his appearance, tired of explaining how the injury occurred, hesitant to be around skittish children. He isolated himself from others by working in the Wyoming oil fields and restricting his social interactions to a close circle of family and friends.

Fast-forward to the present day. After Andy’s successful procedure made national headlines, he’s regained the confidence and purpose he lost while dealing with the stigma of his deformity. Two proof points: Andy was recently promoted at work and has started dating again.

Andy acknowledges, though, that he still grapples with the choices he made along life’s journey that made his story possible.

“I want people to learn from my mistakes, but to also learn about the lifesaving difference they can make as organ donors,” Andy says. He’s bringing that message to groups ranging from high school students to national organizations as an advocate for suicide prevention and organ donation. Andy dedicates all honorariums from these speaking engagements to a very special cause: a trust fund to benefit the son of his organ donor.

More Than Skin Deep

In a twist no one could have predicted, Andy and his donor will forever be linked beyond organ donation. Calen “Rudy” Ross also attempted suicide, but unlike Andy, he was successful. At the time of her high school sweetheart’s death, Rudy’s wife, Lilly Ross, was just 19 years old and eight months pregnant with their son, Leonard. Lilly’s decision to donate more than just her husband’s vital organs made it possible for Andy to become Mayo Clinic’s first face transplant patient through care from the Mayo Clinic Essam and Dalal Obaid Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery.

Andy and Lilly met each other for the first time in late 2017. Both say the reunion was tinged with a mixture of joy and fear.

“It’s a big excitement to finally meet each other,” Andy says. “The buildup is so much, and then there’s anxiety and pressure.”

Lilly was eager to see how her husband’s features would look on Andy. “Andy can’t grow hair right here, and neither could Rudy,” she says, pointing to a spot on Andy’s chin. “He’s got the flushed cheeks and a little mole on his nose. Otherwise, I see Andy. I don’t see much of Rudy in him.”

Andy, however, sees Rudy in Leonard, a cheerful toddler who jumped into Andy’s arms during their first visit, unfazed by Andy’s face smiling back at him. Lilly says she is most proud of the unselfish legacy Rudy left behind for Leonard through organ donation.

“It makes me extremely happy knowing Andy is able to do what he wants in life now,” Lilly says. “And I am extremely proud of Rudy — that he was able to help numerous people through the donation of not only his face, but his heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and pancreas. This is where we actually get to see the difference in how much he actually helped somebody.” ■

Read the original story ‘Looking Forward

Mayo Clinic is the world’s leader in transplant. Driven by the patients’ unmet need, Mayo Clinic physicians have pioneered many transplant procedures. Help set the new world standard in care for people everywhere.

Stories of Hope
Stories of Hope
Stories of Hope