ROCHESTER, Minn. - For the past 10 years, 32-year-old Andy Sandness has been faced with the worst mistake he's ever made.
He was 21, battling depression and so he decided to shoot himself in the face. He says he immediately regretted it.
"I was stupid. I made the wrong choice and I’m paying for it for the rest of my life.”
A decade later, the eastern Wyoming man got a second chance at a new life.
"I’m here, a little excited, happy. A little nervous,” he told the Mayo Clinic’s videographer right before the surgery.
Ironically the man who would give him that chance tried to kill himself too but unlike Sandness, he died. Calen Ross, who lived in southern Minnesota, was a donor and his family agreed to the surgery.
So last summer, Mayo Clinic surgeons and nurses attempted the hospital's first facial transplant. It took more 50 hours, roughly 40 surgeons and nurses and more than three years of practice.
"50 Saturdays over the last three and half years just dedicated to being able to do this procedure well for Andrew,” Dr. Samir Mardini told KARE 11.
Mardini, the lead surgeon said the doctors had to connect the complicated facial nerves from the donor to the patient. And to guide them, they used 3-D technology to help them cut the exact angles, replacing almost everything below his eyes.
"So when we took the donor’s face with all the complex bones of the jaw, and put it on the recipient, it fit perfectly,” he said.
After the marathon surgery and unable to talk, Sandness scribbled a note to the doctors and nurses who were in the room when he saw his face for the first time.
"This far exceeds my expectations,” read Mardini who responded, “I can’t tell you how happy that makes us feel.”
Mardini still gets emotional thinking about it.
"It was a remarkable moment,” he said.
Several months later, Sandness is no longer hiding, but living learning how to talk with his new mouth and teeth. And grateful someone gave him another chance to smile.
"I’m just looking forward to getting out in the world and doing the things I missed out on. I missed out on a lot over the last 10 years,” he said.