Often in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank on her lap, it’s been months since Sandra Bennington has had the strength to worship at Medina Church of the Nazarene on a Sunday.

But she just couldn’t miss the special service this week.

Robb Stubblefield sermonized about God’s ineffable plans and unflinching purpose for all his children.

“Nothing can be hidden from his understanding, not even tragedy,” Stubblefield said, looking during particularly painful moments to his wife, Alesia, and daughter, Katie, who sat beside Bennington.

At 18 years old on March 25, 2014, Katie relented to the pain of life, the social pressure, the stress of a senior year in high school and college that fall, a recent breakup with a boyfriend and physical ailments. Issues that seemed “ordinary” to Robb became unbearable for Katie, who put the barrel of her brother’s rifle under her chin and pulled the trigger.

The single round ripped apart her jaw, tongue and nose, lodging shrapnel in her brain before exiting between her eyes. Living in Mississippi at the time, Katie was treated for seven weeks at a Tennessee hospital then flown to the Cleveland Clinic for three years of operations. Doctors thought she may never again breath on her own, Robb Stubblefield said.

In 2017, she became the youngest person in America and only the third at the Cleveland Clinic to receive a face transplant. Katie’s parents stayed at Cleveland's Ronald McDonald House for 4½ years during their daughter’s numerous surgeries, ongoing physical rehabilitation and weekly speech therapy.

Now, for the first time in five years, Katie has no operation on her personal calendar.

Bennington can relate to the pain and suffering. Her daughter “made some bad choices” and died at 39 years old. Her husband followed, leaving Bennington's granddaughter, Adrea Schneider, an orphan at 18 years old.

Bennington had raised Adrea, who she said was born with addiction, since she was 11. As a young woman, Adrea had been saved by the Lord, Bennington said, but a “bad choice” of her own left her on life support with no brain activity at 30.

Adrea was a “sweet” soul, Bennington recalled. She had a “God-given” gift for taming horses and an affection for pit bulls. To Bennington’s surprise, she even signed up as an organ donor.

Sharing her memories of Adrea, Bennington grew emotional as she recalled a photo of Katie in National Geographic. The magazine chronicled the rare face transplant and uphill recovery. In the photo, Katie’s parents are wrapping their arms around their daughter, smothering her in affection as they did Sunday.

“That love and tenderness and compassion that Robb and Alesia have for Katie — that’s what Adrea always wanted,” said Bennington, choking back the tears. Throughout Sunday’s sermon, the mourning grandmother occasionally leaned over to rest her hand or head on Katie, who now wears Adrea’s face.

 

Face of a donor

 

The Stubblefields moved out of the Ronald McDonald House in December.

They're living modestly in an apartment in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood. Alesia said a friend is giving them a window air-conditioning unit as the summer heats up.

The Rev. Pete Ryder of Medina Church of the Nazarene arranged for the Stubblefields' visit Sunday. Ryder, who can be reached at 330-722-7683, recirculated the collection Sunday for the Stubblefields' medical bills and living expenses.

Katie is recovering. Her balance is getting better and her speech, even without her prosthetic palate, is getting clearer. Her last surgery extended the length of her tongue, which hasn't been used much in the last five years. From here on out, her father Robb said the focus has shifted away from life-saving and reconstructive surgeries to rehabilitation, which involves physical training, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and up to three times a week with a speech therapist to loosen her atrophied tongue.

As she and the family left the sanctuary Sunday, pastor Ryder wheeled Bennington over to a tree the church planted Saturday to memorialize the grandmother's choice to let her granddaughter's face live on.

Andrea Quinn with Lifebanc, a Northeast Ohio organization that matches organ donors with patients in need, attended the Sunday service with Bennington. Quinn said Adrea had the thoughtful foresight to register as a donor, which allowed Bennington as next of kin to approve normal organ donations. But there was never a discussion about her face.

"The conversation is important," said Quinn, who encouraged people to register as a donor by contacting Lifebanc at www.lifebanc.org or 216-752-5433.

Quinn first met Bennington while Adrea was still on life support. She then learned of Katie. Quinn confirmed that the women's blood types matched and phoned Bennington, who called her church and prayed on the decision.

"They wanted her face, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my.'" Bennington recalled. "But I just thought about the other person and if she would have a chance at a better life."

Now, the Stubblefields call Bennington their own personal "saint." Standing beside the tree where a plaque will soon memorialize the grandmother's choice, Bennington told Katie to say cheese.

The two smiled for a photograph. In the nearby pavilion, Bennington reached inside a gift bag and pulled out a stuffed black and white dog.

"This was given to Adrea in the hospital. It's not much," said Bennington, who handed over the plush toy she's kept these past two years.

"Thank you so much," Katie said, wiping Adrea's face.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.