Army Pvt. Shamika Burrage almost died in 2016. The 19-year-old was returning back to base after visiting her family when her tire blew out, causing her to lose control of the car, which flipped and skidded for 700 feet before ejecting her. Thanks to prompt medical care, she only lost an ear instead of her life. But now, thanks to military plastic surgeons, she’s even got that back.
In a first for United States Army doctors, Burrage received an ear transplant that was grown from her own tissue inside her own body. A team, led by Lieutenant Colonel Owen Johnson III, the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, harvested cartilage from Burrage’s ribs, carved it into the shape of an ear, and implanted it under the skin in her arm. There, it developed blood vessels, which Johnson says will allow Burrage to regain feeling in the ear once it’s healed. In an announcement released on Monday, Johnson called the operation a success.
“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,” said Johnson in the statement. “As a young active-duty Soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get.” Johnson also used skin from Burrage’s arm to help conceal the borders of the transplant and make the reconstruction more seamless. Soon Burrage, who is now 21 years old, will bear few marks of her fateful crash.
This procedure may be the U.S. Army’s first such transplant, but it’s definitely not the first time doctors have grown ears for patients. In 2012, doctors at Johns Hopkins University grew an ear under the forearm skin of a cancer survivor. In January, doctors in China successfully grew and transplanted ears onto children born with a birth defect that affects natural ear growth. In 2015, a child who had suffered burn injuries received the first 3D-printed nose.
Recent history suggests that procedures like Burrage’s will likely become more and more commonplace. Some doctors have even predicted that 2019 will be the year we’ll regularly print new noses and ears with human cells. In the meantime, Burrage has a couple more surgeries before her procedure can be considered complete. She’s feeling good about the surgery, though.
The ear had closed up because of the trauma from the accident, but Burrage says she can hear just as well as she could before. “I didn’t lose any hearing and [Johnson] opened the canal back up.”