Almost eleven years ago, Wyoming resident Andrew Sandness was so despondent he stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Miraculously surviving, he had eight surgeries over a 5 month period, but after it was all over, his face was so disfigured he could barely stand to look at himself and rarely left the house. So he decided to place himself on a “face donor” list at the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Then, after a 19-year-old man killed himself and his fiancé donated his organs to science, Sandness’s name finally got called. So he began talking with doctors at the Essam and Dalal Obaid Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, about a face transplant. And on June 16, 2016, 60 surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical professionals carried out the clinic’s first near-total face transplant on Sandness.
The groundbreaking procedure has given Sandness a new lease on life. “I am absolutely amazed at the outcome so far,” he said. “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.”
According to Dr. Samir Mardini, the surgical director, “Mayo Clinic has a long history of specialized teams of experts providing complex care to patients who need hope and healing. This is an extraordinary example of the teamwork, collaboration and compassion that we provide at Mayo Clinic, and I couldn’t be more proud of this team.” However, Dr. Mardini also took care to point out that Sandness was also integral to the procedure’s success: “Andy has been our patient for 10 years. He has worked so hard to prepare for this, and during his entire recovery period, he has been strong, gracious and determined. Andy is an amazing person and so well-deserving of this gift.”
Face transplants involve removing part or all of a donor’s face and attaching it to the patient. The skin, fat, muscles, nerves, tendons, cartilage, and bone are all components of the transplant. Once the nerves and blood vessels are attached, the potential for sensation, function, and mobility begin to emerge that are similar to the patient’s original face, though extensive rehabilitation plays an important role in this stage of the process. Sometimes the patient may even regain the ability to speak, chew food, and smell.
It is no surprise to those in the medical community that this revolutionary transplant took place at the Essam and Dalal Obaid Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery at Mayo Clinic. For over 50 years, the Clinic, which performs more transplants than any institution in the country, has carried out organ, tissue, and bone marrow transplants on thousands of patients. And since as long ago as the 1930s, medical professionals have been experimenting with various partial face transplants.
But the Clinic’s ability to conduct a near-total face transplant was jump-started seven years ago through a funding gift from the Essam and Dalal Obaid Foundation (EDOF), which was used to initiate the Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery that bears the foundation’s name. EDOF was started by Tarek Obaid to spread the values his parents had instilled in him, particularly hope. The organization is dedicated to helping established institutions in the medical and social progress fields further their missions.
Upon hearing of the face transplant on Mr. Sandness, Tarek Obaid, the founder of EDOF, was ecstatic:
“ I could not be happier. When I chose Mayo Clinic to be a recipient of a major medical grant, I knew they had the drive and expertise to do great work. The goal of our gift was to give them the resources to do that, and this successful operation shows how well they’ve put those resources to good use. ” Tarek OBAID
Mr. Obaid also had encouraging words for Mr. Sandness: “It is a rare achievement for EDOF that Andrew will find the will to live again, to lead a prosperous life, and to spread the message of hope to others.”
Dr. Hatem Amer, the medical director of the Essam and Dalal Obaid Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery, also commented positively on Mr. Sandness’s transformation: “We are grateful that the guiding principles of the Mayo Brothers have endured and shepherded the development of the Reconstructive Transplant program, and for Andy’s dedication to his medical care.” And, of course, Mr. Sandness himself is overjoyed. His facial muscles are growing stronger, and he’s making progress with his speech therapist.
How is he handling all the attention of being the recipient of a groundbreaking medical procedure? Quite well. In fact, in his own words, Mr. Sandness now looks forward to being “just another face in the crowd.”