Lilly Ross lost her husband to suicide more than a year ago, but she found a way for him to live on after donating his remains, including his face.
Andy Sandness was the fortunate recipient of Calen "Rudy" Ross' face. Ten years earlier, Sandness blew away most of the lower portion of his face after he shot himself with a rifle in a suicide attempt in 2006. The incident left him severely disfigured, with no nose and only a small, quarter-sized hole for a mouth. Ashamed of his appearance, Sandness hid himself from the world for years. He finally found some hope in 2012 after the Mayo Clinic started a face transplant program. After finally receiving the transplant in 2016, Sandness' life has completely changed.
"You can stand in the elevator and not have to hide your face because you're scared that you're scaring other people. And it's just now I'm able to go chew food, go sit down in restaurants and just it's been unbelievable," said Sandness.
Lilly Ross was nervous about meeting Sandness for the first time. She was worried that seeing Sandness would bring back heartbreaking memories of the past, but that all went away when she and Sandness met last month. Rudy Ross was an ideal match for Sandness based on skin color and facial features, but they did not look the same. Instead, what Lilly Ross saw was how her tragic loss reinvigorated the life of Sandness and all of the others who received her husband's organs.
"With meeting Andy, it has finally given me closure on how everything happened because it just, everything happened so fast and it was just, it was hard," Lilly Ross said, choking back tears.
Rudy Ross and Sandness were eerily similar. Both spent their lives outdoors fishing and hunting, Sandness in his native Wyoming and Rudy Ross in Minnesota. Both shot struggled with suicide. Now the transplant serves as a silver lining to a shared history of pain.
"You couldn't ask for a better outcome. This is just, it's, when I found out how he had passed, it gave me chills," said Sandness.
The meeting also gave Lilly Ross an opportunity for her young toddler, Leonard, to meet the man who now has his father's face. The boy initially stared at Sandness before walking over to him and waving for him to pick him up. Lilly Ross shared pictures of she and her husband on their wedding day and during her pregnancy. The two now say they feel like family.
Sandness now feels like he has an obligation to do right by the Ross family.
"All you can do is just prove to them that they made the right decision in the donation and just do your best," he said.