Mayo Clinic's first face transplant gives man a second chance at life

Andy Sandness, after receiving a face transplant at Mayo Clinic.

A new procedure for the Mayo Clinic brought together two very similar men who never had the chance to meet.

Both were avid outdoorsmen from small towns. Both decided to take their own lives at age 21 – but one survived.

The two suicide attempts happened almost 10 years apart, and led to Mayo Clinic's first ever face transplant last summer. Friday, the Rochester-based medical center released videos and photos explaining the decade-long journey.

Andy's story

Andrew Sandness is from the small city of Newcastle, Wyoming.

The young man struggled with depression. Before Christmas in 2006, the 21-year-old pulled a rifle out of the closet.

"I was going through some rough times," Andy said in Mayo Clinic's video. "I made the wrong choices."

Andy pulled the trigger and instantly realized he'd made a big mistake. The Associated Press says the young man was conscious when police arrived, begging "Please, please don't let me die! I don't want to die!"

Miraculously, Andy survived. But the gunshot wound destroyed most of his face.

He shattered his cheekbones, lost most of his lips and teeth, and all of his nose and jaw.

"I was stupid, I made the wrong choice," Andy said. "Now I'm paying for it for the rest of my life."

Everywhere he went, people stared and asked questions.

In 2016, Andy decided to go back under the knife for another round of reconstructive surgery.

His name was added to a list of people waiting for an organ transplant. Doctors at Mayo Clinic told him it might take years for him to find a match – but months later, he got called into surgery.

Rudy's story

Calen Ross, who went by Rudy, was from Fulda – a small city in southwestern Minnesota.

He was married and had a baby on the way. But at just 21 years old, he was also struggling with a demon.

In June 2016, Rudy took his own life.

Rudy had wanted to be an organ donor, and tests determined he was a perfect match for a Wyoming man, Andy Sandness.

The surgery

Mayo Clinic says that in the three years leading up to its first face transplant, dozens of specialists practiced doing the operation more than 30 times. But it wasn't until summer of 2016 that they operated on a living, breathing person.

Surgeons spent more than 50 hours restoring Andy's nose, jaw, cheeks, teeth and facial muscles. It was a huge surgery, but the skin took – there's always a risk of rejection with transplant surgeries.

The clinic released detailed information on the surgery Friday, saying Andy is doing well.

"I am absolutely amazed at the outcome so far,” says Sandness. “I am now able to chew and eat normal food, and the nerve sensation is slowly improving, too. My confidence has improved, and I’m feeling great ― and grateful. I am so thankful to my donor and the donor’s family.”

He's still in Rochester, but Mayo Clinic expects Andy will be able to go home to Wyoming later this month to continue his second chance at life.

Next Up