Ten years after blowing much of his face off in a failed suicide attempt, a face transplant recipient who underwent a 56-hour operation has seen his new skin for the first time.
Andy Sandness was just 21 when he reached breaking point in the days leading up to Christmas in 2006 – drunk and depressed, he grabbed a rifle from his closet, placed the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Bloodied, critically injured but remarkably not dead, Andy instantly regretted his decision, begging police “please, please don’t let me die”.
He awoke in hospital to find his mother holding his hand, prompting him to reach for a notebook and pen – “I’m sorry”, Andy wrote.
The severe disfigurement made Andy justifably awkward and nervous in social situations, eventually sending him into complete isolation, retreating into the hills to fish and hunt and avoid human contact.
"I would tell them it was a hunting accident... I felt like they didn't need to know," Andy said.
What followed was an excruciating medical journey that spanned more than a decade and ironically ended up revolving around another man’s tragic suicide.
Ten years later and 800 kilometres away from his Wyoming home, another 21-year-old by the name of Calen Ross took his own life in June 2016.
Mere weeks away from becoming a father, Calen’s mental demons became too much to bear, leaving behind a devastated and heavily pregnant widow, Lilly.
Late last year, Lilly agreed to her late husband’s face being donated to a man who had spent the past decade in hiding.
Before Calen’s passing, doctors told Andy and his family that the wait for a donor that had the right blood, tissue, skin tone and facial dimensions could be another five years.
“I was skeptical at first... I didn't want to walk around and all of a sudden see Calen,” a nervous Lilly said before she was eventually reassured she would not recognise her husband in Andy.
In adjoining rooms with some 60 surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists present, the 56-hour marathon surgical transplant commenced.
Fast forward to 2017 and the day everyone had been waiting for was finally here – the big reveal.
Surrounded by friends and family, Andy was handed a mirror to see what his new nose, cheeks, mouth, lips, jaw, chin and teeth looked like.
Still without full use of his mouth, he reached for his notebook and scribbled four words, “far exceeded my expectations”.
Now returning to a normal life, Andy said he feels comfortable just “being another face in the crowd”.
If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, seek support and information by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visiting the Lifeline website.
If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, you can find help, support and information by calling: Lifeline on 0800 543 354; the Samaritans on 0800 726 666 (for callers from lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 (from all other regions); or Suicide Crisis Helpline on 0508 828 865.