Science: Sometimes it’s just amazing! After Sherrie Walter, a 42 year-old Bel Air woman suffering from an especially aggressive form of skin cancer, had to get one of her ears surgically removed to stop the spread of the disease, her Johns Hopkins docs figured they might as well build her a new one. Using her own tissue. And then “store” it under the skin on her forearm.
In 2008, Walter became worried by a scab that “just didn’t heal.” After she was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma in 2010, her doctors found that the disease had spread to parts of her skull, salivary gland, and ear canal — hence the ear removal surgery. But the doctors didn’t leave it there. In January, 2011, they embarked on a risky, extremely complex surgical experiment to give Walter her ear back. A prosthetic ear wouldn’t work, because the surgery had removed much of the surrounding bone structure that could support a fake, detachable ear. So they decided to make her a new, living one. “When my doctors told me reconstruction was possible, I thought it was too good to be true; it sounded like science fiction,” Walter says. “Just learning that reconstructing my ear was doable gave me sufficient physical and emotional strength, as well as the confidence I needed to go through with the surgeries.”
The Hopkins doctors took more than a dozen pieces of bone, cartilage, skin, and arteries from Walter’s own body (to minimize the chance that her immune system would reject the new ear as an impostor) and painstakingly reconstructed her ear. Patrick Byrne, Walter’s lead surgeon, carved bone and stitched cartilage to make a precise match of Walter’s other ear. But that was hardly the end of it; at that point, the ear was still skinless. To fix this, the surgeons implanted the newly-crafted ear under Walter’s forearm skin, where it lived for four months — or until Walter’s skin stretched and grew around it.
Walter’s series of surgeries was completed this month with a final ear-contouring and shaping procedure. “It’s my skin, my bone, and the most realistic surgical replacement to what my ear was before my cancer,” Walter says.