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Soldier loses ear, Army surgeon grows one in her forearm

"She was 19 and healthy and had her whole life ahead of her...why should she have to deal with having an artificial ear for the rest of her life?"

In a first-of-its-kind medical breakthrough for the Army, plastic surgeons at William Beaumont Army Medical Center successfully transplanted a new ear on a soldier who had lost hers in a car accident.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The total ear reconstruction involved carving a new ear out of cartilage taken from under the soldier's ribs and placing it under the skin on her forearm to allow it to grow, according to the U.S. Army.

The army says Pvt. Shamika Burrage had been waiting for the surgery for over a year. In 2016, she was returning to Fort Bliss after visiting family in Mississippi when a tire blowout changed her life forever.

Burrage said the car skidded for 700 feet before it flipped several times again and eventually ejected her from the vehicle altogether. Burrage's pregnant cousin managed to only suffer minor injuries.

Burrage wasn't so lucky. She suffered head injuries, compression fractures in the spine, road rash and the total loss of her left ear.

She says she doesn't remember much after the crash and can only recall waking up in her hospital bed. It was there that she was told by doctors that, had she not gotten the medical attention she did, she could have bled to death.

With a tragic accident like that causing the loss of her left ear, Burrage experienced a lot of emotions surrounding her physical appearance and participated in several months of rehab and counseling. Because she was so uneasy about her appearance, during rehab, a provider referred her to a plastic surgeon.

"She was 19 and healthy and had her whole life ahead of her," WBAMC chief plastic surgeon Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III said, according to the U.S. Army. "Why should she have to deal with having an artificial ear for the rest of her life?"

At first, Burrage was hesitant about undergoing reconstructive surgery, but after careful thought she decided to move forward with it.

"I was going to go with the prosthetic, to avoid more scarring but I wanted a real ear," she said. "I was just scared at first but wanted to see what he could do."

Johnson took prelaminated forearm free flap, which involved placing cartilage into the patient's forearm to allow for the formation of new blood vessels. The technique will allow Burrage to have feeling in her ear once the rehabilitation process is fully complete. She has two more surgeries left to complete.

"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," Johnson said. "As a young active-duty Soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get."

Burrage didn't lose any hearing throughout the process, she said. Johnson was able to reopen her ear canal, which had closed from the trauma suffered in her accident.

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

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