face transplant
February 21, 2017

Mayo Clinic performs successful 50-hour face transplant

More than a decade after he attempted to commit suicide, a Wyoming man is finding new life as the recipient of the first facial transplant in the history of the Mayo Clinic – a procedure that took a team of more than 60 surgeons a total of 56 hours to complete, according to reports.

The patient, Andy Sandness, was 21-years-old when he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the face with a gun, Business Insider and ScienceAlert reported over the weekend. He survived, but the shot left him with severe damage to his nose, teeth, and jaw. Doctors attempted to repair the damage, but there was only so much they could do for Sandness at the time.

face transplant healing

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It wasn’t until six years later, in 2012, that surgeons at the Mayo Clinic first proposed performing a face transplant – a complicated and risky operation. After carefully considering his options, the patient told them to go ahead with the preparations for the procedure – preparations that included dozens of weekend training sessions and a hunt for a suitable organ donor.

In January 2016, only five months after Sandness was added to the organ donor list, he received the call that doctors had found a match: a 21-year-old man named Calen “Rudy” Ross who, like Sandness, had tried to commit suicide using a gun. Unlike Sandness, however, Ross succumbed to his injuries, and after some hesitation, his wife gave permission for his face to be used.

Patient has regained the ability to chew and smell like normal

The operation was performed last June, according to BBC News. The team, which was led by facial reconstruction specialist Dr. Samir Mardini, spent an entire day collecting the skin, bone, and muscles that would be needed from the donor. They then began to transplant the nose, lips, cheeks, mouth, teeth, chin and jaws onto Sandness’s face, working from the top down.

As part of the procedure, doctors identified nerve branches on the faces of both men, then used electric currents to determine their functions (i.e. smiling or blinking) so that Sandness would be able to perform those tasks using his new face, explained BBC News. The patient wasn’t allowed to see the results for three weeks, but once he first saw what his new face looked like, he told the surgeons that it was much better than he had been expecting.

“Once you lose something that you've had forever, you know what it's like not to have it, and once you get a second chance to have it back, you never forget it,” he told reporters. Since then, he has regained the ability to smell, breathe and eat like he did before his ordeal started, and as Dr. Mardini told CBS News, the patient was able to enjoy a steak dinner for the first time since he had lost his teeth more than a decade beforehand. “It’s been a huge deal for him.”

“I am absolutely amazed at the outcome so far,” the now 32-year-old Sandness said during an interview with Fox 9 in Minnesota. “I am now able to chew and eat normal food, and the nerve sensation is slowly improving, too. My confidence has improved, and I’m feeling great – and grateful. I am so thankful to my donor and the donor’s family, and to all of the people who have supported me throughout this process.”

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Image credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall