Face to face with his dead daddy

When the love of my life died, I thought I’d never see him again...

Chat - - Contents - Lilly Ross, 22

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

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