Face to face with his dead daddy
When the love of my life died, I thought I’d never see him again...
I stayed by Rudy’s side, hoping and praying he’d pull through
Breaking the news to my husband Rudy in autumn 2015, I was so excited.
‘I’m pregnant!’ I beamed. Calen ‘Rudy’ Ross, 21, grinned, his face breaking into his gorgeous, lop-sided smile – and my heart melted.
He was over the moon. Everything will be OK now, I thought.
Since marrying in October 2015, Rudy had been prone to feeling down at times.
When it happened, I’d gently say, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing to worry about,’ he’d reassured me.
I persuaded him to see a therapist. Talking seemed to help. And now I hoped the news of a baby would lift his spirits.
Rudy bought a crib and loads of little outfits. In February 2016, we found out we were expecting a boy and Rudy was already on the case for a name. ‘I like Leonard,’ he beamed. With each day that passed, my bump, and our excitement, grew. In June 2016, I was eight months pregnant and about to get in the car, when I spotted Rudy... He was sitting in his truck, just a few feet away. Suddenly, a gunshot rang out, sending a shiver down my spine. I glanced over, saw Rudy was shaking. I grabbed my phone, called an ambulance. I must have known what he’d done. But everything was such a blur. It didn’t truly sink in till Rudy was rushed to hospital and placed on life support. At the hospital, two police officers approached me. ‘I’m very sorry,’ one explained, ‘but your husband shot himself in the head.’ I broke down, sobbing. I knew he’d been down at times, but this? I stayed by Rudy’s side, hoping and praying that he would pull through.
Though he was the patient, the doctors worried about me, too. Were anxious that I’d go into labour.
But there was nothing I wanted more.
Desperate for my waters to break and for contractions to begin.
‘I want Leonard to meet his Daddy,’ I sobbed. ‘I want pictures of them together.’ The following day, doctors declared Rudy brain dead.
The man I’d known and loved since school was gone.
Only his body remained, kept alive by machines.
Doctors carried out Rudy’s wishes, organising for his organs to be donated.
That’s when a coordinator came to speak to me.
‘Would you consider donating Rudy’s face?’ the support worker asked.
Organs were one thing... But his face?!
‘Would the recipient look like Rudy?’ I asked, worried I’d one day bump into him.
‘No, he won’t,’ she reassured. ‘His bone structure is different.’
So I agreed, desperate for anything that would make Rudy’s tragic death not be in vain.
Heart in pieces, I said my goodbyes – and in June 2016, a mammoth 56-hour operation took place at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, here in Minnesota.
I couldn’t let myself think
about who would get Rudy’s face.
Because weeks later, I went into labour.
My mum Rachel, 45, and sister Victoria, 20, were by my side.
‘I wish Rudy was here,’ I sobbed.
After 20 gruelling hours, my son Leonard was born, weighing 10lb 3oz.
When I held him in my arms, I sobbed even harder.
He had so much of Rudy in his tiny face.
The slope of his ears and eyebrows, the curve of his lips...
Being a single mum was hard, but I loved it.
I loved having a piece of my hubby to cuddle and love. When I heard that Rudy’s organs had saved five people, it was a great comfort. I even received letters from some. Then, in October 2017, I learnt about Andy Sandness, the man who’d received Rudy’s face. Turns out they’d shared the same blood type, skin colour and some facial structures. Their stories were not all that different, either. A decade before Rudy had taken his own life, Andy, then 21, had attempted to do the same. He’d shot himself under the chin. Only he hadn’t died. Instead, he’d been left with two teeth, no lips or nose, a shattered face and little vision in his left eye. Although surgeons had attempted to rebuild his face, he’d been forced to live with a tiny mouth and a prosthetic nose. Receiving Rudy’s donated face had given Andy a chance to live a normal life again. I was so moved by his story that when donation staff offered me the chance to meet Andy, I agreed.
I was nervous, but wanted Leonard to know, one day, how his dad has helped someone.
In October 2017, I took Leonard with me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
I’ve never been so nervous as I waited, heart pounding.
Then the lift doors opened and Andy stepped out.
Instinctively, I ran over and we threw our arms around each other and hugged. ‘Thank you,’ he said, crying. He looked so handsome. As I touched his face – Rudy’s face – I felt relieved.
I didn’t see my hubby looking back. But he was there. His rosy-red cheeks and a small, hairless patch of skin in the middle of his chin.
And as we talked, I was amazed how similar Andy and Rudy were.
From their love of the outdoors, to their hobbies of fishing and hunting.
It felt like fate.
‘This is Rudy,’ I said, showing Andy my wedding album.
Andy told me his story, talked me through his family pictures, too.
Listening, I felt so incredibly proud, knowing how Rudy’s gift had helped Andy.
Afterwards, we kept in touch, with Andy making the 26-hour drive to celebrate Leonard’s second birthday in July 2018.
Nothing will ever take away the pain of losing Rudy, but thanks to Andy and all the other people who have received his organs, I’ve been given hope for the future.
I talk to Leonard all the time about his incredible dad, and we’ve got photos all around the house.
I’m glad Andy’s in my life, because he’s living proof of Rudy’s amazing legacy.
He was there. Those rosy cheeks, the patch on his chin...
We were so excited Leonard looks so much like his daddy
Andy Sandness pre-surgery Showing Andy the photos of me and Rudy Andy and I have a very special bond