Pvt. Shamika Burrage, 21, has a new left ear after undergoing reconstructive surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical Center (WBAMC), located in El Paso, Texas.
Her new ear was created out of cartilage taken from her ribs, then shaped like an ear, and implanted under the skin of her forearm to allow the growth of new blood vessels.
This surgery is a first for army physicians and is a combination of procedures used in plastic surgery reconstruction for congenital malformations of the external ear most common in birth defects in children.
(Next: The Car Accident That Took Burrage’s Ear)
Pvt. Burrage lost her left ear in a car accident two years ago when she was 19 years old. She was returning to Fort Bliss from leave, traveling with her pregnant cousin, when her car blew a tire.
Burrage lost control of the vehicle, which veered off-road for 700 feet before flipping several times and throwing Burrage from the vehicle. Although her cousin did not receive significant injuries, Burrage suffered head and spine injuries, losing her left ear to road rash.
“I remember people asking if we were okay and then I blacked out,” she said. The next memory she had was waking up in the hospital.
She went to counseling for the trauma of the accident and her injuries. Doctors were able to restore her hearing by opening her ear canal which had closed up when healing from the accident, but Burrage still had to live with the emotional trauma of her disfigurement.
Her counselor suggested plastic surgery. “I was going to go with the prosthetic, but I wanted a real ear. I was just scared at first,” Burrage said.
Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at WBAMC, explained that the surgery involved harvesting cartilage through an incision in Burrage’s chest.
The cartilage was then fabricated into a new ear through careful carving and suturing to match the shape of her other ear.
Once that was complete, the doctors used a procedure called “prelaminated forearm free flap” to insert the new ear into her arm so it could develop new arteries, veins and even nerves so that Burrage will be able to feel it.
“The whole goal is by the time she’s done with all this, it looks good, it’s sensate, and in five years if somebody doesn’t know her they won’t notice,” Dr. Johnson said in a statement.
Experiments in this type of reconstructive surgery go back to 1995 when a laboratory mouse, nicknamed “Earmouse,” was the first patient to grow a human ear using transplanted cartilage at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Head researcher Charles Vacanti implanted the ear under the skin of the mouse’s back.
With the first news of their success, the researchers faced controversy from people afraid of genetic engineering. The hoopla was based on a misunderstanding of the experiment. There was no genetic engineering involved.
The success of this procedure has spurred many life-changing plastic surgery procedures for people with injuries and birth defects.
In 2013, scientists at University College London, used an unnamed man’s bone marrow cells to grow a new nose for him after he lost his to cancer. The nose was implanted into his arm for about six weeks in order to grow skin before it was transferred to his face. There, doctors opened the nostrils and used epithelial cells to develop mucus membranes.
Pvt. Burrage has two surgeries to go before her reconstruction is complete. Dr. Johnson spoke of the Army’s commitment to active-duty soldiers, saying, “They deserve the best reconstruction they can get.”
Meanwhile, Burrage has shown an indomitable spirit. With her army duty ending this week, she is looking forward to going to nursing school soon. “I didn’t let something as big as this bring me down to the point where I called it quits. I just kept going,” she said.