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The Moment a Widow Touches Her Late Husband's Skin on a Stranger's Face After Transplant

From TIME - November 10, 2017

(ROCHESTER, Minn.)Standing in a stately Mayo Clinic library, Lilly Ross reached out and touched the face of a stranger, prodding the rosy cheeks and eyeing the hairless gap in a chin she once had known so well.

Thats why he always grew it so long, so he could try to mesh it together on the chin, she told Andy Sandness, as he shut his eyes and braced for the tickle of her touch on new nerve endings in the face that had been her husbands.

Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Sandness the face that had belonged to Calen Rudy Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to donate her high school sweethearts visage to a man who lived nearly a decade without one.

The two came together last month in a meeting arranged by the Mayo Clinic, the same place where Sandness underwent a 56-hour surgery that was the clinics first such transplant. With her toddler Leonard in tow, Ross strode toward Sandness, tears welling in her eyes as they tightly embraced.

Ross had fretted before the meeting, fearful of the certain reminders of her husband, who took his own life. But her stress quickly melted awaywithout Calens eyes, forehead or strong cheeks, Sandness didnt look like him, she told herself.

Instead, she saw a man whose life had changed through her husbands gift, newly confident after 10 years of hiding from mirrors and staring eyes.

It made me proud, Ross said of the 32-year-old Sandness. The way Rudy saw himselfhe didnt see himself like that.

Sandness and Calen Ross lived lives full of hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors before their struggles consumed them, 10 years and hundreds of miles apart.

Sandness put a rifle below his chin in late 2006 in his native Wyoming and pulled the trigger, destroying most of his face. Ross shot himself and died in southwestern Minnesota a decade later.

By then, Sandness had receded from contact with the outside world, ashamed of his injuriessurgeries to rebuild his face had left him a quarter-sized mouth, and his prosthetic nose frequently fell off.

Hope first came in 2012 when the Mayo Clinic started exploring a face transplant program and again in early 2016 when he was wait-listed for the procedure.

Ross already had agreed to donate her husbands lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients. Then LifeSource, a Midwestern nonprofit organization that facilitates organ and tissue donations, broached the idea of a donation for a man awaiting a face transplant at the clinic.

Ross and Sandness ages, blood type, skin color and facial structure were such a near-perfect match that Sandness surgeon, Dr. Samir Mardini, said the two men could have been cousins.

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