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AP Exclusive: Minnesota widow meets man who received her husband’s face via transplant

Lilly Ross, left, shows her family photos to Andy Sandness during their meeting at the Mayo Clinic, Oct. 27, 2017, in Rochester, Minn. Sixteen months after transplant surgery gave Sandness the face that once belonged to Ross' husband, Calen "Rudy" Ross, he met the woman who had agreed to donate her high school sweetheart's face to a man who lived nearly a decade without one. (AP Photo / Charlie Neibergall)

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When a Minnesota woman was preparing to meet the man who received her dead husband’s face in a transplant operation, the hospital that performed the surgery – the Mayo Clinic – immediately recommended that The Associated Press be the news organization to tell their story.

In early 2016 AP national writer Sharon Cohen, video journalist Teresa Crawford and photographer Charlie Neibergall had been first with the tale of Andy Sandness and Calen “Rudy” Ross. The AP team’s sensitive portrayal of two men who had each attempted suicide,with the one who lived (Sandness) ultimately receiving the face of the one who did not (Ross),had been well-regarded by Sandness and by Ross’ widow,Lilly.

In the months following,Mayo was besieged with requests from news outlets to cover the first meeting between Andy and Lilly,with one outlet calling and emailing as often as twice a month. But when Andy and Lilly began making plans to meet in fall 2017, they wanted only AP in the room.

With Cohen on vacation,St. Paul correspondent Kyle Potter joined Crawford and Neibergall to cover a meeting that began with a tearful embrace between Andy and Lilly and included Andy holding the Rosses’ toddler son. Lilly Ross said later that she had agonized over the meeting,afraid that seeing Rudy’s face on another man would stir painful memories of his suicide. Instead,she said, the meeting “made me proud” as she saw how Andy’s life had been transformed.

The video presentation,edited by Krysta Fauria,was a big hit,with 24 AP Video US downloads and widespread use by major customers such as CBS,ABC,NBC, The Washington Post and more. Teletrax found 226 uses of the video. The text story,which Potter worked closely on with News Editor Doug Glass,had 460 uses,according to NewsWhip,including The New York Times,Minneapolis Star Tribune,Chicago Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press. The story generated more than 31,000 social interactions on customer sites.

For their sensitive and exclusive coverage of a poignant meeting,Crawford, Neibergall and Potter win this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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