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Face transplant recipient transforming lives with a message of hope

Hannah Tiede
Created: September 26, 2019 11:34 PM

(ABC 6 News) - It’s an incredible story of a second chance at life. 

For years, ABC 6 News has been following Andy Sandness; the first Mayo Clinic patient to receive a face transplant.

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On Thursday, he publicly shared his mental health journey at Mayo Clinic's annual Transform Conference.

“I regret that day and I hate the word regret,” Sandness said to a packed auditorium at the Mayo Civic Center.

Two days before Christmas in 2006, Sandness; a 21-year-old at the time, tried to take his life.

“I built up a wall and I wouldn't let nobody in,” he said. “Finally, it just got to that point where I exploded and there was no controlling it.”

His suicide attempt was unsuccessful. Sandness, instantly wishing he hadn't pulled the trigger, begged an officer not to let him die.

“You have the failure that you let your family down,” said Sandness. “It goes away but it's still there.”

Sandness made it out alive but not without scars. The lower half of his face was destroyed.

“I'm from a small town of 3,000 people and everybody knows me,” he said. “Everybody knows what happened.”

“He lived with a deformed face for 10 years,” said De. Samir Mardini, the Chair of Plastic Surgery at Mayo Clinic. “To me, Andy is the ultimate story in second chances.”

In 2016, a team of 9 surgeons and more than 40 operating room staff worked for 56 hours, performing a face transplant on Sandness.

“We have replaced everything below his eyes,” said Dr. Mardini. “So all of his cheekbones, his maxilla, the jaw, the teeth … We knew exactly which nerve needs to go to the other one.”

Sandness’ donor was a 21-year-old man from Minnesota who fatally shot himself.

“We are sad to report that there are increasing rates of suicide,” said Dr. Sheila Jowsey-Gregoire, a Mayo Clinic Psychiatrist. “There are reports coming out right now that are saying that in over half of the states, the rates have gone up 30%- 40%in the last 20 years.”

That’s why nearly three years after his face transplant, Sandness is sharing his story.

“I am on stage and if I could just help one person reach out to somebody, that's it -- that's all I ask --just talk to somebody,” said Sandness.

“It helps you to know you're not alone, to hear from somebody has been down the same path,” said Dr. Jowsey-Gregorie. “It's not a character flaw, this is an illness and we can treat it.”

Sandness, now treating his depression, takes it one day at a time. “I'm not who I used to be,” he said. “I'm not the person in between the gunshot, I am Andy right now. I'm excited for what the future holds.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.


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