Saturday 25 November 2017

Tearful wife feels her dead husband's face after transplant

Lilly Ross feels the beard of face transplant recipient Andy Sandness during their meeting at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Picture: AP
Lilly Ross feels the beard of face transplant recipient Andy Sandness during their meeting at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Picture: AP

Kyle Potter

A woman who donated her husband's face to a stranger burst into tears when she finally met him for the first time - 16 months after the successful transplant.

At the famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Lilly Ross reached out and touched the rosy cheeks and eyed the hairless gap in a chin that she had once known so well.

"That's why he always grew his beard so long, so he could try to mesh it together on the chin," she told the transplant recipient Andy Sandness.

More than a year after surgery gave Mr Sandness the skin and muscles that had belonged to Calen 'Rudy' Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to donate her high-school sweetheart's face to a man who had lived nearly a decade without one.

Mr Sandness underwent a 56-hour surgery that was the clinic's first such transplant.

With her toddler Leonard in tow, Ms Ross strode toward Mr Sandness, tears welling in her eyes as they tightly embraced.

She had fretted before the meeting, fearful of the certain reminders of her husband, who took his own life. But her stress quickly melted away. Without Calen's eyes, forehead or strong cheeks, Mr Sandness didn't look like him, she told herself.

Instead, she saw a man whose life had changed through her husband's gift, newly confident after 10 years of hiding from mirrors.

"It made me proud," Ms Ross said of the 32-year-old Mr Sandness.

Calen Ross and Mr Sandness lived lives full of hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors before their various struggles consumed them, 10 years and hundreds of miles apart.

Mr Sandness put a rifle below his chin in late 2006 in his native Wyoming and pulled the trigger, destroying most of his face.

Mr Ross shot himself and died in southwestern Minnesota a decade later.

Ms Ross had already agreed to donate her husband's lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients.

Then LifeSource, an organisation that facilitates organ and tissue donations, broached the idea of a donation for a man awaiting a face transplant.

The men's ages, blood type, skin colour and facial structure were a near-perfect match.

Now, Ms Ross and Mr Sandness plan to forge a stronger connection and he has said that he will contribute to a trust fund for Leonard's education.

Irish Independent

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