At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Lilly Ross was introduced to Andy Sandness, the 32-year-old man who now has her late husband’s face.
Mrs Ross, whose husband Calen “Rudy” Ross died in 2016, reached out and touched Mr Sandness’ face, prodding the rosy cheeks and eyeing the hairless patch on his chin she once had known so well.
“That’s why he always grew (his beard) so long – so he could try to mesh it together on the chin,” she told Mr Sandness.
Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Mr Sandness the face that had belonged to Mr 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 Mr Sandness underwent a 56-hour operation, marking the first time the facility had performed such a procedure.
Mrs Ross shared wedding photos with Mr Sandness ( Charlie Neibergall/AP)
With her toddler Leonard in tow, Mrs Ross strode toward Mr Sandness, tears welling in her eyes as they tightly embraced.
Before the meeting, Mrs Ross had been fearful of reminders of her husband, who took his own life.
But without Calen’s eyes, forehead or strong cheekbones, Mr Sandness did not look like him, she said.
Mr Sandness, 32, 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.
Mr Sandness put a rifle below his chin in late 2006 in his native Wyoming and pulled the trigger, destroying most of his face. Mr Ross shot himself and died in south-western Minnesota a decade later, aged just 21.
By then, Mr Sandness had receded from contact with the outside world, ashamed of his injuries. Surgery to rebuild his face had left him with a tiny mouth, and his prosthetic nose frequently fell off.
Mrs Ross had already agreed to donate her husband’s lungs, kidneys and other organs to patients in need.
Then, LifeSource, a Midwestern non-profit organisation which facilitates organ and tissue donations, broached the idea of a donation for a man awaiting a face transplant at the clinic.
Mr Ross and Mr Sandness’ ages, blood type, skin colour and facial structure were such a close match that Mr Sandness’ surgeon, Dr Samir Mardini, said the two men could have been cousins.
Mrs Ross consented, despite her hesitation about some day seeing her husband’s face on a stranger.
Eight months pregnant at the time, she said one reason to go forward was that she wanted the couple’s child to one day understand what his father did to help others.
Life with a transplanted face takes work, every day. Mr Sandness is on a daily regimen of anti-rejection medication.
He is constantly working to retrain his nerves to operate in sync with his new face, giving himself facial massages and striving to improve his speech by running through the alphabet while driving or showering.
“I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted,” Mr Sandness told Mrs Ross.