When he was just 21-years-old, Andy Sandness attempted to take his own life. And though he survived, he lost his nose, mouth, and jaw in the process. Now, 10 years later, he has been given a new chance to blend into a crowd thanks to a face transplant at the Mayo Clinic.
Sandness had been a patient at the Mayo Clinic since the 2006 incident, undergoing 8 surgeries in the month following the tragic event. And while they tried to repair the damage the best they could, there was little they could do about his missing mouth and jaw. Then, in 2012, he received news that would change his life.
The clinic was launching a face transplant program and asked if he’d been interested. For Sandness, who had been left with a prosthetic nose and had to tear food into small pieces and suck on them in order to eat, it was the moment he’d been waiting for.
“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,” he told the AP, “and this was the surgery that was going to take me back to normal.”
To prepare for the complex procedure, doctors at the Mayo Clinic spent 50 Saturdays over the next three years training. After being accepted into the program in January 2016, Sandness was expecting a long wait before being called. However, in June 2016 he received word that a match was found.
Calen “Rudy” Ross, who at age 21 died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, had previously declared his intent to be an organ donor. And, after some hesitation, his wife, who was 8 months pregnant at the time, agreed to the surgery.
An enormous team of 60 worked together to complete the 56-hour surgery. Sandness, who was not allowed to see himself for three weeks post-op, was overwhelmed by the results. “Once you lose something that you’ve had forever, you know what it’s like not to have it,” he admitted. “And once you get a second chance to have it back, you never forget it.”
Last December he returned for surgery to tighten skin around his face and neck and to build up bone so his eyes were less recessed. The transformation is incredible. Apart from the physical, Sandness is able to smell again and breath normally. He can now also eat foods like pizza and apples that were previously off limits.
Best of all, he’s anonymous. Recently, Sandness attended a hockey game. After a decade of stares and whispers, he was happy to be “just another face in the crowd.”