It made for an emotional meeting. More than a year after Andy Sandness had a groundbreaking face transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he met the widow of the dead man whose face it used to be.

Andy Sandness, 32, from Wyoming, had 56 hours of surgery last summer to have the face of Calen “Rudy” Ross transplanted, in the first such operation the clinic had performed. The recent meeting, arranged by the clinic, brought Sandness and the donor’s widow, Lucy Ross, together for the first time.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Ross said she had been fretful beforehand, afraid that seeing Sandness would bring back painful memories of her husband, and childhood sweetheart, who had taken his own life. In the event, there was little likeness: the two men had such different bone structure, the face did not look the same.

In the tearful meeting in the clinic’s library, the two hugged each other on sight. Ross said that instead of her former husband, she saw a man whose life had been transformed by the transplant. “It made me proud,” she said. “The way Rudy saw himself, he didn’t see himself like that.”

Sandness said: “I wanted to show you that your gift will not be wasted.”

In the marathon operation led by plastic surgeon Samir Mardini, Mayo Clinic surgeons overlaid the donor’s skin onto Sandness’s raw facial tissue. Over more than two days they restored his nose, upper and lower jaws, teeth, salivary glands and facial muscles. The operation was planned out using virtual surgical technology and 3D printing to maximise the aesthetic outcome.

Sandness must now take drugs every day to prevent his body from rejecting the face, and constantly works to retrain his nerves, giving himself facial massages and striving to improve his speech by running through the alphabet while in the car or the shower.

Sandness lost most of his face in 2006 when he put a rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. A decade later, Calen Ross shot himself and died in southwestern Minnesota. Horrifically scarred, Sandness had become almost a recluse by then.