Lilly Ross had never been as nervous as she was the day she met Andy Sandness.
As she clutched her son Leonard’s hand, she was afraid about how she would feel to see her husband’s face again – except this wasn’t a reunion between two past loves.
Lilly’s beloved husband Rudy was dead, and Andy was the man who had battled back from the brink of death to be given an incredible gift – Rudy’s transplanted face.
‘I felt incredibly proud,’ an emotional Lilly, 21, tells New Idea of the moment she and Andy met in October 2017.
‘I’d been so nervous waiting for that day, because I felt it would be so hard to see Rudy’s face on someone else.
‘But it didn’t look completely like my Rudy because the eyes and cheekbones were different.
‘I immediately felt a deep sense of closure that I had been missing in my life.
‘I was happy that Rudy had helped Andy in such a positive way – it’s a legacy for our son Leonard.’
This incredible story began two days before Christmas in 2006.
Andy, then 21, had reached a breaking point in his life and had been feeling ‘super depressed’ for days.
He grabbed a rifle from his closet and shot himself under the chin.
Immediately, he knew he had made a terrible mistake and he pleaded with a police friend who had come to help, saying: ‘I don’t want to die.’
The attempted suicide left Andy with just two teeth, no lips, a shattered face and little vision in his left eye. He spent years hidden from the world, ashamed of his appearance.
Surgeons tried to rebuild his face, but it left him with a tiny mouth and his prosthetic nose kept falling off – so he retreated.
Meanwhile, surgeons at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota had been developing face transplants.
In January 2016, Andy’s name was added to the transplant waiting list.
Five months later in June, leading surgeon Dr Samir Mardini called Andy to say that a potential donor had been found – it was Lilly’s husband Calen ‘Rudy’ Ross.
Ten years after Andy tried to kill himself, Rudy Ross, then 21, tragically did the same while Lilly was eight months pregnant with their son Leonard, now 17 months old.
‘I met Rudy when we were both at high school together,’ Lilly, from Minnesota, recalls.
‘He was a year older than me and I fell quickly in love with him.
‘He was outgoing, funny, and sometimes just weird.
‘He was sweet, caring and kind, and he always wanted a family.
‘We were married in October 2013 and we were very happy.’
But despite their joy, Lilly says there were times when Rudy could be very down and depressed – but he hid it well, and the good times seemed to outweigh the bad.
When Lilly fell pregnant, she said the couple were in a good place and looking forward to the birth of their first child.
So when Rudy took his own life in June 2016, it was a terrible shock for his bride.
‘I still find it incredibly hard to talk about losing Rudy,’ Lilly admits. ‘We were buying baby stuff for Leonard and I thought everything was going great.
‘It’s still hard to deal with honestly. And the only reason I carried on was because I had to for Leonard. If it wasn’t for my son, I don’t know where I would be today.’
Lilly had to find the strength, despite her intense sadness, to have Leonard – without her husband being there by her side to support her.
‘It was a difficult and very emotional day,’ she says.
During her 20-hour labour, her mother, sister and Rudy’s aunt Teresa were with her for much-needed support – and Leonard was born on July 6, weighing 4.7kg.
Rudy had already chosen to be an organ donor in the event of his death. When he died, Lily respected his wishes.
All of his major organs – including his lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas – were donated, but when Lilly was approached about donating his face by an organisation called LifeSource, she was apprehensive.
‘I kept thinking: “What if the recipient looks like Rudy,”’ she admits. ‘That would have been very hard for me to handle, knowing that there was a man who looked like my husband living out there.’
But the medics reassured Lilly that the recipient’s different bone structure would mean that wouldn’t be the case.
‘All the same, I was still really nervous about it,’ Lilly says.
But knowing it had been her husband’s wish to help others after his death, she agreed.
In June 2016, during an epic 56-hour operation, Rudy’s face was transplanted onto Andy’s.
The pair were a match – having the same blood type, skin colour and similar facial shapes. The operation was a success, and in October Lilly met Andy.
She took Leonard with her so he could meet the man who his daddy had helped, and she couldn’t stop herself reaching out to touch Andy’s face as the tears fell from her eyes.
‘Andy was himself – he didn’t look like Rudy and it was a relief,’ she says candidly.
‘I was so happy to see him.’
She adds Andy was incredibly grateful for the donation.
Now, Lilly is taking each day at a time, and she has no regrets.
‘Organ donation is the best thing you can do,’ she explains.
‘I believe that everyone who received Rudy’s organs is part of our family in some way.’
If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues raised in this story, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au.