By Jamie Ducharme
May 10, 2018
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

You’ve heard the cliché about wearing your heart on your sleeve. But a group of Army doctors did one better: They grew a new ear on a soldier’s forearm, using cartilage harvested from her ribs.

Two years ago, Pvt. Shamika Burrage, an Army supply clerk, was returning to her post in Texas after visiting family in Mississippi, according to an Army statement. Her front tire blew during the drive back, sending the car careening off the road. When Burrage hit the brakes, the car skidded for 700 feet and flipped several times. She was thrown from the vehicle, and suffered head injuries, spinal compression fractures and the total loss of her left ear.

Even as Burrage, now 21, made her physical recovery, she remained self-conscious about her appearance. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I looked so the provider referred me to plastic surgery,” Burrage said in the statement.

She was presented with a daring plan from Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Texas’ William Beaumont Army Medical Center. Johnson proposed building a new ear using cartilage taken from Burrage’s ribs, then tucking the ear under the skin of her forearm to allow it to grow and form new blood vessels, according to the statement.

“She was 19 and healthy and had her whole life ahead of her,” Johnson said in the statement. “Why should she have to deal with having an artificial ear for the rest of her life?”

Originally wary of reconstruction, Burrage at first planned on getting a prosthetic — but eventually, she decided she wanted a real ear. “I was just scared at first but wanted to see what he could do,” she said, according to the Army’s statement.

The procedure was a first for the Army, but it harkens back to the notorious Vacanti Mouse, a rodent onto which scientists implanted the shape of a human ear back in the 1990s. Johns Hopkins Hospital also used a similar procedure for a cancer patient who lost her ear, ABC News reports, and earlier this year, doctors in China used a combination of 3-D printing and cartilage harvesting to grow new ears for five children with a birth defect called microtia, CNN reports.

Burrage didn’t lose any hearing during the procedure, according to the statement, and if all goes well during rehabilitation, she’ll also have feeling in her reconstructed ear. Johnson will also use skin from Burrage’s forearm to cover scar tissue on her left jawline.

Burrage still has two surgeries to go, but she said she’s feeling optimistic.

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

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