A Groundbreaking Face Transplant

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Lily lost Rudy, the love of her life, to suicide – but when she agreed to donate his organs to help others, she gave his legacy a chance to live on. Now Rudy’s face has been transplanted to a survivor of a suicide attempt.

Lily and Rudy had recently married and were expecting a baby when Rudy was overcome by depression and took his own life. Lily donated all of Rudy’s major organs in accordance with his wishes, hoping that their son would know how many lives his father saved. Most remarkably, Rudy’s face was used to give another man a chance at a fresh start.

“I was a little reluctant at first,” Lily admits. “A lady reassured me that it wouldn’t look anything like him. And I was like – OK, go for it.”

Watch: Heart-in-Box Transplant Breakthrough

Rudy’s face made all the difference for Andy, another man overcome by depression who had shot himself in the face. Andy survived his suicide attempt, but much of his face was left severely disfigured.

“Only a few dozen face transplants have ever been attempted, and none as intricately challenging as this one,” explains ER Physician Dr. Travis Stork. The transplant alone took a marathon 56-hour surgery to complete. Three weeks later, Andy saw his new face for the first time. “It far exceeded my expectations,” he writes to his doctor.

Plastic Surgeon Dr. Samir Mardini of the Mayo Clinic explains the procedure to The Doctors. He says the surgical team rehearsed the surgery over and over on 30 weekends, “So when we went to do the surgery everybody was very comfortable with what they needed to do. It was something magical to see.”

“Will his face change over time?” Plastic Surgeon Dr. Andrew Stork wants to know. Dr. Mardini says that it will probably age more quickly than normal, since that has happened in previous transplants. “We were fortunate to have a donor who was 10 years younger, so that really helps a lot,” he adds. He expects Andy to continue to stabilize and improve as he learns to live with his new face.

Watch: Cornea Transplant

Every part of Andy’s face below the eyes was replaced, including his mouth and teeth, nose, cheekbones, and both jawbones. All of the muscle and skin to cover those areas came from Rudy. The surgeons had to map out the facial nerves and connect them. “The donor face and the generosity of the family is really what made the difference,” he stresses.

“Dr. Mardini, we often talk about how broken our health-care system can be,” Dr. Stork tells him. “I believe that you and your team is everything that’s right with the American healthcare system.”

To learn more about becoming an organ donor, visit organdonor.gov.