Tear­ful meet­ing for pair linked by face trans­plant

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Kyle Potter

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Stand­ing in a stately Mayo Clinic li­brary, Lilly Ross reached out and touched the face of a stranger, prod­ding the rosy cheeks and eye­ing the hair­less gap in a chin she once had known so well.

“That’s why he al­ways grew it so long, so he could try to mesh it to­gether on the chin,” she told Andy Sand­ness, as he shut his eyes and braced for the tickle of her touch on new nerve end­ings in the face that had been her hus­band’s.

Six­teen months after trans­plant surgery gave Sand­ness the face that had be­longed to Calen “Rudy” Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to do­nate her high school sweet­heart’s vis­age to a man who lived nearly a decade with­out one.

The two came to­gether last month in a meet­ing ar­ranged by the Mayo Clinic, the same place where Sand­ness un­der­went a 56-hour surgery that was the clinic’s first such trans­plant.

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

Ross had fret­ted be­fore the meet­ing, fear­ful of the re­minders of her hus­band, who took his own life.

But her stress quickly melted away — with­out Calen’s eyes, fore­head or strong cheeks, 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 and star­ing eyes.

“It made me proud,” Ross said of the 32-year-old Sand­ness. “The way Rudy saw him­self, he didn’t see him­self like that.”

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

Sand­ness put a ri­fle below his chin in late 2006 in his na­tive Wy­oming and pulled the trig­ger, de­stroy­ing most of his face. Ross shot him­self and died in south­west­ern Min­nesota a decade later.

By then, Sand­ness had re­ceded from con­tact with the out­side world, ashamed of his in­juries — surg­eries to re­build his face had left him a quar­ter-sized mouth, and his pros­thetic nose fre­quently fell off.

Hope first came in 2012 when the Mayo Clinic started ex­plor­ing a face trans­plant pro­gram and again in early 2016 when he was wait-listed for the pro­ce­dure.

Ross al­ready had agreed to do­nate her hus­band’s lungs, kid­neys and other or­gans to patients. Then LifeSource, a Mid­west­ern non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that fa­cil­i­tates or­gan and tis­sue do­na­tions, broached the idea of a do­na­tion for a man await­ing a face trans­plant at the clinic.

Ross and Sand­ness’ ages, blood type, skin color and facial struc­ture were such a near-per­fect match that Sand­ness’ sur­geon, Dr. Samir Mar­dini, said the two men could have been cousins.

Ross con­sented, de­spite her hes­i­ta­tion about some­day see­ing her hus­band’s face on a stranger.

More than a year after a surgery that took a team of more than 60 medical pro­fes­sion­als, Sand­ness is find­ing a groove in ev­ery­day life while still trea­sur­ing the sim­ple tasks he lost for 10 years, such as chew­ing a piece of pizza.

For Ross, just meet­ing Sand­ness felt like a huge re­lease — a way to get past a year filled with griev­ing, fu­neral plan­ning and gutwrench­ing de­ci­sions about or­gan do­na­tions.

“Meet­ing Andy, it has fi­nally given me clo­sure,” she said, her voice chok­ing. “Ev­ery­thing hap­pened so fast.”

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AP

Lilly Ross talks after meet­ing Andy Sand­ness last month at Mayo Clinic. Ross says the meet­ing gave her clo­sure.

SAND­NESS, ROSS PHO­TOS

Shown are Andy Sand­ness, left, be­fore his in­juries in 2006 and Lilly Ross’ hus­band, Calen “Rudy” Ross.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.