His doctor called it a 'miracle,' but for Andy Sandness, a face transplant gave him his life back, 10 years after he'd tried to end it all.
The Wyoming man, 31, received a face transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last June in a 56-hour operation, according to the Associated Press.
When he was finally allowed to see his new face, three weeks after the surgery, he wrote four words in a spiral notebook and handed it to his doctor Samir Mardini. "Far exceeded my expectations," Sandness wrote.
Sandness lost the lower half of his face, including his nose, mouth and jaw after a failed suicide attempt two days before Christmas in 2006.
Then 21 years old, he had been "super, super depressed" when he grabbed a rifle from a closet, put the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger. He instantly regretted it, and when police arrived, he begged, "Please, please don't let me die! I don't want to die!"
He was eventually transferred to the Mayo Clinic, where he met Dr. Mardini, a plastic surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction.
Sandness underwent eight surgeries over four and a half months to rebuild his face, using bone, muscle and skin from his hip and leg.
He eventually returned home to Newcastle, Wyoming, and tried to pick up the pieces of his life, but seldom ventured out apart from working at a lodge, in the oil fields and as an electrician's apprentice.
Because his mouth was about an inch wide, too small for a spoon, he was forced to tear food into small pieces and suck on them till he could swallow them. He also had to paint his prosthetic nose to match his skin, and it constantly fell off outdoors, so he carried glue to stick it back on.
"Those were real tough times for him," his father, Reed, told the Associated Press.
In 2012 Sandness was told that the Mayo Clinic was launching a face transplant program, and he was extremely eager to be a candidate for the surgery.
"When you look like I looked and you function like I functioned, every little bit of hope that you have, you just jump on it," he told the AP, "and this was the surgery that was going to take me back to normal."
After undergoing psychiatric and social work evaluation, he was accepted for the program, and in January 2016, his name was added to the waiting list for the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Sandness had been warned that it could take up to five years to find the right donor — but just five months later, a match was found.
The donor was Calen "Rudy" Ross, a 21-year-old man from Fulda, Minnesota, who'd fatally shot himself in the head. His wife, Lilly, 19, who was eight months pregnant with a baby boy, carried out her husband's wishes to be an organ donor.
"There was not a second of doubt that everything was going to go well," Sandness said.
A team of 60 surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists worked together on the 56-hour surgery, which began shortly before midnight Friday and ended early Monday morning.
After the surgery ended Dr. Mardini proclaimed it "a miracle."
Sandness was overwhelmed when he was finally given a mirror to look at his face.
"Once you lose something that you've had forever, you know what it's like not to have it," he said. "And once you get a second chance to have it back, you never forget it."
Lilly Ross has seen photos of Sandness before and after the transplant, and both she and Sandness hope to meet one day. "I'm excited for him that he's getting his life back," she said.
Want stories like these delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up now for the Us Weekly newsletter!