US Army soldier grows ear in arm for reconstructive surgery

A soldier who lost her ear in a 2016 car accident has a newly transplanted ear that was grown in her own arm, the Army said.

Plastic surgeons at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, performed the Army’s first ear reconstruction and transplant, a statement from the armed service branch said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I looked so the provider referred me to plastic surgery,” Pvt. Shamika Burrage said in the statement. “I didn’t want to do [the reconstruction] but gave it some thought and came to the conclusion that it could be a good thing. I was going to go with the prosthetic, to avoid more scarring but I wanted a real ear.”

Burrage was driving from Mississippi to Fort Bliss, Texas, two years ago when her front tire blew out. Her car skidded 700 feet and flipped several times, according to the statement. Burrage, along with her cousin who was in the front passenger seat, were both ejected from the car and she “suffered head injuries, compression fractures in the spine, road rash and the total loss of her left ear.”

Doctors later told her that if she had not received medical attention in 30 minutes, she would have bled to death.

When the option of ear reconstruction was presented to her, Burrage wasn’t sure if she wanted to go through with it.

“I was just scared at first but wanted to see what he could do,” she said.

Once Burrage decided to proceed with the ear transplant, the long process began. Surgeons removed cartilage from her rib and carved a new ear. In order to allow the ear to grow new blood vessels so it would have feeling, they placed it in her forearm. After it was grown, they removed it from her forearm and attached 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,” Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery said in the statement.

While this is the first surgery of its kind in the Army, similar procedures and transplants have been performed. In 2012, a cancer patient who had to have her ear removed, Sherrie Walter, went through a 16-hour procedure to have her ear, neck glands, lymph nodes tissue and part of her skull removed.

Dr. Patrick Byrne at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine pioneered the ear surgery that used the forearm to grow the ear for reconstruction. The entire process for Walter’s ear reconstruction took 20 months.

For Burrage, there are still two more surgeries left, the Army statement said, but she’s feeling more optimistic and is excited to finish the procedures.

“Why should she have to deal with having an artificial ear for the rest of her life?” Johnson said. “As a young active-duty Soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get.”

—ABC News By JOSIAH BATES