Soldier lost her ear in car accident, so doctors grew a new one – in her forearm

EL PASO, Texas — Shamika Burrage survived a near-fatal car accident two years ago, but not without losing something pretty important: her left ear.

Now, thanks to a novel procedure performed at an Army medical center in Texas, Burrage is getting that ear back in a most unusual way.

Plastic surgeons harvested cartilage from Burrage’s ribs to create a new ear and then grew it under the skin of her forearm. Then the doctors at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso successfully transplanted the ear from her arm to her head.

The technique — a first time in the Army — is called prelaminated forearm free flap, said Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical Center.

Some of the big advantages of it is that it reduced the chance of more scarring around Burrage’s ear. Also, growing the ear under the skin of her forearm allows new blood vessels to form.

“(The ear) will have fresh arteries, fresh veins and even a fresh nerve so she’ll be able to feel it,” Johnson said on the US Army’s website.

Burrage, a 21-year-old private, still has to endure two more surgeries, but she’s feeling more optimistic about the future than ever in the years since her accident.

“It’s been a long process for everything, but I’m back,” said Burrage.

The accident

Burrage was in Odessa,Texas, in 2016, driving back to Fort Bliss after a visit with her family in Mississippi when a tire blew out.

“We were driving and my front tire blew, which sent the car off road and I hit the brake,” she said. “I remember looking at my cousin who was in the passenger seat, I looked back at the road as I hit the brakes. I just remember the first flip and that was it.”

Her car slid about 700 feet, then flipped several times before Burrage was ejected. The cousin who was in the car with her suffered only minor injuries, but Burrage had head injuries, spine fractures, road rash and lost her left ear.

“I was on the ground, I just looked up and (her cousin) was right there,” Burrage said. Then I remember people walking up to us, asking if we were OK and then I blacked out.”

Doctors later told Burrage she would have bled to death if 30 more minutes had passed before she got medical attention.

The surgery

Burrage had resigned herself to living a life with a prosthetic ear, but she didn’t like the way it looked. So she sought out other options through plastic surgery.

What Johnson and the other surgeons at the medical center proposed — growing an ear in her forearm and then transplanting it — shocked her.

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

And Johnson said it just made sense to try it, since Burrage is so young and shouldn’t have to deal with an artificial ear for the rest of her life.

“The whole goal is by the time she’s done with all this, it looks good, it (has feeling), and in five years if somebody doesn’t know her they won’t notice,” he said. “As a young active-duty soldier, they deserve the best reconstruction they can get.”