Andy Sandness is showing off the successful results of his face transplant 10 years after he almost killed himself with a gunshot

He’d been waiting for this day, and when his doctor handed him the mirror, Andy Sandness stared at his image and absorbed the enormity of the moment. He had a new face, one that had belonged to another man.

This came near the end of an extraordinary medical journey that revolved around two young men. Both were rugged outdoorsmen and both just 21 when, overcome by demons, they decided to kill themselves. One, Sandness, survived but with a face almost destroyed by a gunshot; the other man died.

It was two days before Christmas in 2006 when Andy Sandness reached a breaking point. Instantly, he knew he’d made a terrible mistake. When the police arrived, an officer who was a friend cradled him in his arms as Sandness begged: “Please, please don’t let me die! I don’t want to die!”

All Sandness could think about was how he’d hurt his family and just wonder what was next. The answer came quickly when he met Mardini, a plastic surgeon who specialises in facial reconstruction.

As a newcomer at Mayo, the doctor was on call Christmas Eve. Over the next few days, he reassured Sandness that he’d fix his face as best he could.

It would take time and much surgery. And despite their skills, the doctors couldn’t miraculously turn him back into that guy with the orthodontist-perfected smile

Calen Ross
Calen Ross, whose tissues were donated after he died last year.

Sandness couldn’t bear to see himself, so he covered his hospital room mirror with a towel.

Dr. Mardini and his team removed dead tissue and shattered bones, then connected facial bones with titanium plates and screws. They reconstructed his upper jaw with bone and muscle from the hip; they transferred bone and skin from a leg to fashion the lower jaw. They used wires and sutures to bring together his eyelids, which had been spread apart because of the powerful blast.

Eight surgeries

After about eight surgeries over 4 months, Sandness returned home. Sandness learned to adapt. His mouth was about an inch wide too small for a spoon so he tore food into bits, then sucked on them until he could swallow the pieces.

Over the next five years, Sandness made yearly visits to Mayo. Then in spring of 2012, he received a life-changing call. Dr. Mardini told him it looked like Mayo was going to launch a face transplant program and Sandness might be an ideal patient.

Three more years passed as Sandness waited.

By then, Mayo Clinic had completed a long internal review to get the face transplant program approved.

In January 2016, Sandness’ name was added to the waiting list of the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Just five months later, Mardini got a call: There might be a donor. He phoned Sandness, cautioning it was just a possibility. The next day, Mardini got the final word: The donor’s family had said OK.

The decision came from a 19-year-old newlywed mourning the sudden loss of her husband. In early June, Calen “Rudy” Ross fatally shot himself in the head. His devastated widow, Lilly, was eight months pregnant. Despite her grief, she was committed to carrying out her husband’s wishes — on his driver’s license, Ross, who lived in Fulda, Minnesota, had designated he wanted to be an organ donor.

Late on June 16, Sandness was wheeled into surgery, accompanied by Dr. Mardini.

Andy Sandness can pinpoint the day he looked normal. About three months after the transplant, he was in an elevator when a little boy glanced at him, then turned to his mother without appearing scared or saying anything. “I knew then,” he says, “that the surgery was a success.”

Here's To Your Health
We're reporting in on the latest in health news, medical research, insurance coverage, plus managing your health and the health of the people you love.
We respect your privacy