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Surgeons 'grew' ear on Army private's arm after she was disfigured in horrific crash

Autologous cartilage in the shape of an ear growing in a patient's forearm is shown as part of cutting-edge total ear reconstruction performed on a 21-year-old soldier at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso.
Autologous cartilage in the shape of an ear growing in a patient's forearm is shown as part of cutting-edge total ear reconstruction performed on a 21-year-old soldier at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso.

Plastic surgeons at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso are calling Pvt. Shamika Burrage total ear reconstruction and transplant a success.

That's after Burrage, 21, got to watch her new left ear grow — on her right arm.

You read that right.

Doctors harvested cartilage from Burrage's ribs and carved a new ear out of that cartilage, according to a U.S. Army news release. Then, they placed it under the skin in her right forearm to allow the ear to grow.

"I was going to go with the prosthetic, to avoid more scarring, but I wanted a real ear," Burrage said in the release. "I was just scared at first but wanted to see what [the surgeon] could do."

Burrage was nearly killed in a car crash in 2016 near Odessa, Texas. She was driving with her cousin, heading back to Fort Bliss where she was stationed, from her home in Mississippi. When a tire blew, the car skidded 700 feet, and then started rolling.

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Pvt. 1st Class Shamika Burrage at a Fort Bliss promotion ceremony on April 27. U.S. Army

Luckily, her cousin, who was 8 months pregnant at the time, sustained only minor cuts and bruises. But Burrage — a supply clerk with the 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division — was thrown from the vehicle.

She would have bled to death had she gotten to the hospital even 30 minutes later than she did.

She lost her left ear and suffered several head injuries and compression fractures in the spine. After months of rehabilitation and counseling, she chose total ear reconstruction over the prosthetic options.

"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 Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, WBAMC. "As a young active-duty soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get."

The ear reconstruction was the first of its kind for an Army surgeon, but not in the world of medicine. Doctors have been performing similar procedures since at least 2012, according to ABC.

Burrage's new ear has fresh arteries, fresh veins and even a fresh nerve, so she will actually be able to feel it, once her rehabilitation is complete. It's all thanks to the blood vessels that formed while the cartilage-ear was tucked under Burrage's forearm.

In addition to the transplant, some of her forearm epidermis was attached to her ear, which covers additional scar tissue around Burrage's left jawline.

After the transplant, she's got just two surgeries left on her long road back since the crash in 2016. According to a Fort Bliss Facebook account, she was promoted to Pvt. 1st Class on April 27, and she plans to attend Arizona State University after processing out of the Army.

"It's been a long process, but I'm back," Burrage said.

Lilly Ross' husband, Calen "Rudy" Ross, killed himself in 2016. But she got to see and touch her husband's face again on face transplant recipient Andy Sandness.

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