Truth can be stranger than science fiction. Sherrie Walters knows that all too well. In 2008, she was diagnosed with a rapidly spreading cancer that forced doctors to remove most of her left ear to stop the disease from getting to other parts of her body. Then, Walters' reconstructive surgeon decided to design her a completely new ear, and grow it on her arm. (See an image at right.) How did this groundbreaking operation work? Here, a brief guide:
What happened to Walters' ear?
In 2008, when she was stricken with a rapidly-spreading basal cell cancer — a type of skin cancer — doctors had to remove part of Walters' left ear, along with part of her skull and ear canal. Her reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Patrick Byrne of Johns Hopkins University, explained that she had a couple of options. She could have used a prosthetic ear. Those are usually attached to the skull with a titanium rod, but with part of Walters' skull missing she would have had to apply it every day with tape and glue. "It would have been a royal pain in the butt," Byrne said. So Walters opted for the more complicated route.
What was the more complicated route?
A new series of operations that would break new ground in reconstructive surgery. Byrne stitched together the foundation of a new ear using cartilage from Walters' rib area, then he implanted the tissue under the skin on Walters' own forearm. There, it was able to grow for several months until it could be transplanted safely to replace the ear Walters, 42, had lost. "I thought of this exact strategy many years before," says Byrne, a renowned plastic surgeon, "and really was looking for the right patient to try it on."
How did Walters handle the experience?
The surreal sight took some getting used to. "I feel like an experiment," Walters says. "We started making jokes just to try to get used to it," her husband, Damien, says, "and I was like, 'Can you hear me? Can you hear me?'" Ultimately, they say, the payoff is proving to be well worth the time, emotional strain, and worry.
Did the doctor successfully move the ear to where it belongs?
Yes. After it had grown, Byrne attached the ear and blood vessels in their proper place. Another operation, this week, aimed to give the ear more defined features and the right shape. Walters has already regained her hearing thanks to a special hearing aid. Now "it's just a matter of time as the swelling goes down and it heals," Byrne says. "I believe she will have a normal looking ear." This is "a heartwarming-if-a-little-yucky story," says Kyle Wagner at Gizmodo. Medical firsts like this remind you of all of the wonderful "uses of all the scientific might we have at our disposal."