By Prarthana Mitra
US Army Pvt. Shamika Burrage found herself in a Van Gogh-esque predicament, when she lost her left ear in a near-fatal car accident in 2016.
Two years later, the 21-year old Texas resident became the first recipient among the armed forces of a unique ear transplant, which involved regrowing her ear under the skin of her forearm. The US army reported the success of the operation in a public statement on Monday, adding that Burrage is now en-route to recovery.
Here’s what happened
In a first of its kind operation, surgeons at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, used cartilage from the soldier’s ribs to fashion a new ear. Plastic surgeons then placed the cartilage beneath the epidermal layer of the soldier’s forearm and allowed to grow, before attaching it back to her head.
“As a young active-duty Soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get,” said Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the medical centre.
Losing an ear was not the only injury Burrage suffered on that fateful day of the car crash. In 2016, Burrage had been driving from Mississippi to Texas when the front tires of her car blew out, causing the car to skid and flip. The accident resulted in Burrage sustaining severe trauma to the head, as well as spinal fractures. Fortunately, her pregnant cousin, who was in the passenger seat during the crash, managed to escape with minor injuries.
Why you should care
Loss of vital organs and bodily appendages is common among armed forces in combat. However, the resounding success of Burrage’s surgery means that US army surgeons can now restore and recreate cartilaginous body parts for soldiers in service. This can also help reduce the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that many soldiers experience after having lost vital organs in combat. In some cases, PTSD can lead to other psychological symptoms like the phantom limb syndrome.
After the accident, Burrage was reportedly deeply conscious and in constant discomfiture about her appearance. She contemplated plastic surgery, even prosthetics, before being presented with the complicated but reconstructive option. Although Burrage was wary and sceptical at first, she eventually relented and decided to give it a shot, saying, “I was going to go with the prosthetic, to avoid more scarring but I wanted a real ear.”
The procedure not only serves to restore a normal appearance to the face, but also recover the ear’s tactile sense post-surgery. According to an ABC News report, the surgery should ideally allow for the formation of new blood vessels in the cartilage, which means all sensations and feelings will return to the ear upon complete rehabilitation.
This kind of ear reconstruction is not completely new in the surgical world, with at least two other cases as precedents, in which doctors performed procedures similar to what Burrage underwent. In 2012, doctors grew an ear under a woman’s forearm skin to replace the one she had lost due to cancer, reported ABC News. A few years later, an ear was grown in the arm of a Chinese man who had been in a car accident, according to China Daily.
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