• Lilly Ross, right, feels the beard of face transplant recipient Andy Sandness during their meeting. (AAP)
A US woman has met the man who now has the transplanted face of her late husband.
Source:
AAP - SBS Wires
10 Nov - 10:44 PM  UPDATED 10 Nov - 11:07 PM

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

Andy Sandness shut his eyes and braced for the tickle of Ross's touch on new nerve endings in the face that had been her husband's.

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 sweetheart's 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 clinic's 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.

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

Lilly Ross, left, hugs face transplant recipient Andy Sandness as they first meet in a library at the Mayo Clinic.

Sandness and Calen Ross lived lives full of hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors before their struggles consumed them, 10 years and hundreds of kilometres 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 injuries - surgeries to rebuild his face had left him a quarter-sized mouth, and his prosthetic nose frequently fell off.

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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 husband's lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients. Then LifeSource, a Midwestern nonprofit organisation 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 say they feel like family now. They plan to forge a stronger connection, and Sandness says he'll contribute to a trust fund for Leonard's education.