Facial transplantation: Hope for healing

Feb 20, 2017 | Tony Hart | @TonyHart87

Andy Sandness’ struggle began as a battle with depression and a regrettable attempt to take his own life with a high-powered rifle in 2006. The 32-year-old oil field worker from Wyoming had severe injuries that required more than conventional plastic surgery and reconstruction. Once his condition stabilized, his parents brought him to Mayo Clinic to try to salvage the best quality of life possible under the circumstances.

Hope for healing

Ten years after his suicide attempt, Sandness was given a rare opportunity. Only a few dozen face transplants have been attempted and perhaps none as intricately challenging as this one, which involved nearly every tissue below Sandness' eyes. Facial transplantation is the process of removing part or all of a donor’s face and attaching it onto a patient who has previously suffered facial injury or deformity. Mayo Clinic’s primary goal is to restore normal anatomy and improve function as much as possible.

Sandness' surgery

A team of medical specialists were ready to begin more than 50 hours of complex surgery at the Mayo Clinic Essam and Dalal Obaid Center for Reconstructive Transplant Surgery – the center’s first face transplant. The surgery involved restoring Sandness’ nose, upper and lower jaw, palate, teeth, cheeks, facial muscles, oral mucosa, some of the salivary glands, and the skin of the face (from below the eyelids to the neck and from ear to ear).

Facial Transplant 16:9
3-D printed facial form used for surgical planning.

The surgical team used virtual surgical planning technology and 3-D printing to optimize the aesthetic and functional outcomes of the surgery. Sandness has been recovering in Rochester and likely will return home to eastern Wyoming in February.

Blending in

“It sank in that I’m finally normal again," Sandness says, after the simple act of stepping into an elevator and blending in for the first time in more than a decade. "It felt awesome." Sandness says his life had become quite restricted – socially and functionally. “But, now, I can go back and enjoy my life like I used to," he says.

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