Thirty one year old Andy Sandness had been waiting for this day for a whole decade. He finally had a new face, one he had gotten from another man, but would definitely change his whole life for the better. As Andy’s father, brother and doctors surrounded his bedside at the Mayo Clinic, he slowly examined the swelling on his face. He was just beginning to heal from one of the rarest surgeries in the world – a face transplant, the first at the medical center. He had the nose, cheeks, mouth, lips, jaw, chin, even the teeth of his donor. Although he was not able to speak, he scrawled four words in a spiral notebook for Dr. Samir Mardini, he wrote: ‘Far exceeded my expectations.’
In 2006, just two days before Christmas, Andy Sandness reached a breaking point. He had been sad, drinking too much, but on that particular night, he was ‘super, super depressed.’ After he got home from work, he grabbed a rifle from a closet, stared at it for a while, then put a round in the chamber. He positioned the barrel beneath his chin, took a deep breath and pulled the trigger! Immediately, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. When the police arrived, an officer who was a friend cradled him in his arms as Sandness begged, ‘Please, please don’t let me die! I don’t want to die!’ He was rushed from his home in eastern Wyoming, treated at two hospitals, before finally being transferred to Mayo Clinic.
It was at Mayo Clinic that Sandness met Dr. Mardini, a plastic surgeon whose specialty is facial reconstruction. Over the next few days, the doctor reassured Sandness that he’d fix his face as best he could. ‘I just need you to be strong and patient,’ he said.
Sandness couldn’t bear to see himself, so he covered his hospital room mirror with a towel. He had no nose and no jaw. He’d shot out all but two teeth. His mouth was shattered, his lips almost non-existent. He’d lost some vision in his left eye.
He needed breathing and feeding tubes at first. Mardini and his team removed dead tissue and shattered bones, then connected facial bones with titanium plates and screws. They reconstructed his upper jaw with bone and muscle from the hip; they transferred bone and skin from a leg to fashion the lower jaw. They used wires and sutures to bring together his eyelids, which had been spread apart because of the powerful blast.
After going through 8 surgeries in a period of about four and half months, Sandness was able to go back home. He was forced to avoid eye contact with children so he wouldn’t scare them even though he would occasionally hear them ask their mothers why he looked that way. Sandness also revealed that he sometimes lied when folks asked what had happened. ‘I would tell them it was a hunting accident,’ he says. ‘I felt like they didn’t need to know.’ He also had mean older people taunting him just because of how he looked. ‘Those were real tough times for him,’ says his father, Reed. ‘He was insecure. Who wouldn’t be?’
Over the following ten years, everything worked gradually in what can only be described as a miraculous second chance at life for Sandness. Here is the full story: