‘He had my dead hus­band’s face’


New Idea - - Contents - By Sharon Kee­ble

Lilly Ross had never been as ner­vous as she was the day she met Andy Sand­ness. As she clutched her son Leonard’s hand, she was afraid about how she would feel to see her hus­band’s face again – ex­cept this wasn’t a re­u­nion be­tween two past loves.

Lilly’s beloved hus­band Rudy was dead, and Andy was the man who had bat­tled back from the brink of death to be given an in­cred­i­ble gift – Rudy’s trans­planted face.

‘I felt in­cred­i­bly proud,’ an emo­tional Lilly, 21, tells New Idea of the mo­ment she and Andy met in Oc­to­ber 2017.

‘I’d been so ner­vous wait­ing for that day, be­cause I felt it would be so hard to see Rudy’s face on some­one else.

‘But it didn’t look com­pletely like my Rudy be­cause the eyes and cheek­bones were dif­fer­ent.

‘I im­me­di­ately felt a deep sense of clo­sure that I had been miss­ing in my life.

‘I was happy that Rudy had helped Andy in such a pos­i­tive way – it’s a le­gacy for our son Leonard.’

This in­cred­i­ble story be­gan two days be­fore Christ­mas in 2006.

Andy, then 21, had reached a break­ing point in his life and had been feel­ing ‘su­per de­pressed’ for days.

He grabbed a ri­fle from his closet and shot him­self un­der the chin.

Im­me­di­ately, he knew he had made a ter­ri­ble mistake and he pleaded with a po­lice friend who had come to help, say­ing: ‘I don’t want to die.’

The at­tempted sui­cide left Andy with just two teeth, no lips, a shat­tered face and lit­tle vi­sion in his left eye.

He spent years hid­den from the world, ashamed of his ap­pear­ance.

Sur­geons tried to re­build his face, but it left him with a tiny mouth and his pros­thetic nose kept fall­ing off – so he re­treated.

Mean­while, sur­geons at the world-fa­mous Mayo Clinic in Min­nesota had been de­vel­op­ing face trans­plants.

In Jan­uary 2016, Andy’s name was added to the trans­plant wait­ing list.

Five months later in June, lead­ing sur­geon Dr Samir Mar­dini called Andy to say that a po­ten­tial donor had been found – it was Lilly’s hus­band Calen ‘Rudy’ Ross.

Ten years af­ter Andy tried to kill him­self, Rudy Ross, then 21, trag­i­cally did the same while Lilly was eight months preg­nant with their son Leonard, now 17 months old.

‘I met Rudy when we were both at high school to­gether,’ Lilly, from Min­nesota, re­calls.

‘He was a year older than me and I fell quickly in love with him.

‘He was out­go­ing, funny, and some­times just weird.

‘He was sweet, car­ing and kind, and he al­ways wanted a fam­ily.

‘We were mar­ried in Oc­to­ber 2013 and we were very happy.’

But de­spite their joy, Lilly says there were times when Rudy could be very down and de­pressed – but he hid it well, and the good times seemed to out­weigh the bad.

When Lilly fell preg­nant, she said the cou­ple were in a good place and look­ing for­ward to the birth of their first child.

So when Rudy took his own life in June 2016, it was a ter­ri­ble shock for his bride.

‘I still find it in­cred­i­bly hard to talk about los­ing Rudy,’ Lilly ad­mits. ‘We were buy­ing baby stuff for Leonard and I thought ev­ery­thing was go­ing great.

‘It’s still hard to deal with hon­estly. And the only rea­son I car­ried on was be­cause I had to for Leonard. If it wasn’t for my son, I don’t know where I would be to­day.’

Lilly had to find the strength, de­spite her in­tense sad­ness, to have Leonard – with­out her hus­band be­ing there by her side to sup­port her.

‘It was a dif­fi­cult and very emo­tional day,’ she says.

Dur­ing her 20-hour labour, her mother, sis­ter and Rudy’s aunt Teresa were with her for much-needed sup­port – and Leonard was born on July 6, weigh­ing 4.7kg.

Rudy had al­ready cho­sen to be an or­gan donor in the event of his death. When he died, Lily re­spected his wishes.

All of his ma­jor or­gans – in­clud­ing his lungs, heart, liver, kid­neys and pan­creas – were do­nated, but when Lilly was ap­proached about do­nat­ing his face by an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Life­source, she was ap­pre­hen­sive.

‘I kept think­ing: “What if the re­cip­i­ent looks like Rudy,”’ she ad­mits. ‘That would have been very hard for me to han­dle, know­ing that there was a man who looked like my hus­band liv­ing out there.’

But the medics re­as­sured Lilly that the re­cip­i­ent’s dif­fer­ent bone struc­ture would mean that wouldn’t be the case.

‘All the same, I was still re­ally ner­vous about it,’ Lilly says.

But know­ing it had been her hus­band’s wish to help oth­ers af­ter his death, she agreed.

In June 2016, dur­ing an epic 56-hour oper­a­tion, Rudy’s face was trans­planted onto Andy’s.

The pair were a match – hav­ing the same blood type, skin colour and sim­i­lar fa­cial shapes. The oper­a­tion was a suc­cess, and in Oc­to­ber Lilly met Andy.

She took Leonard with her so he could meet the man who his daddy had helped, and she couldn’t stop her­self reach­ing out to touch Andy’s face as the tears fell from her eyes.

‘Andy was him­self – he didn’t look like Rudy and it was a re­lief,’ she says can­didly. ‘I was so happy to see him.’

She adds Andy was in­cred­i­bly grate­ful for the do­na­tion.

Now, Lilly is tak­ing each day at a time, and she has no re­grets.

‘Or­gan do­na­tion is the best thing you can do,’ she ex­plains.

‘I be­lieve that ev­ery­one who re­ceived Rudy’s or­gans is part of our fam­ily in some way.’

Lilly was ner­vous the day she met Andy – the man who had been given her hus­band’s face.

The young mum was dev­as­tated when she lost hus­band Rudy (above), and she still strug­gles to talk about his un­timely pass­ing.

Thanks to Rudy’s de­ci­sion to do­nate his or­gans upon his death, he saved a stranger.

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