ear3Most of us take our ears for granted. Some of us wish that they didn’t stick out so much, and others simply don’t like the size of theirs. Regardless though, these rather strange body parts that are attached to the sides of our heads, play a major role in our lives. Not only do our ears receive sound, but they also aid in much of our balance. Without ears, the world would not be the place it is today.

For one 9-year-old little girl in China, all she wanted was two ears that looked and functioned correctly. Xiao Min (real name is being kept private by her family), was born with a deformity to her right ear. Much like how a flower goes from bud to blossom, this ear never fully “blossomed”. Not only was this causing her difficulties with hearing, but she also didn’t like its appearance.

“She loves being beautiful, but with her ear, she is always very careful to cover it up with her hair,” explained Xiao’s mother.

ear1A few months ago, Xiao’s father took her to the University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen Plastic Surgery Hospital, looking to find a solution to her problem. Here, doctors elected to use 3D printing technology in order to aid in the complete reconstruction of Xiao’s right ear.

“In previous cases, the plastic surgeon would be required to perform this type of surgery using only X-ray images, coupled with other images of typical ear and skeletal anatomy,” explained Tong Tinghui, one of the members of the surgical team. “It was very difficult to create an accurate reconstruction using this method. Now, however, 3D printing has really developed quite quickly, allowing us to utilize the technology in this specific surgery.”

Using a CT scan of Xiao’s normal left ear, doctors were able to 3D print a mirror image of it. This 3D printed ear model was the perfect tool in aiding surgeons in their endeavor to build a new ear for the little girl.

With this model created, University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital orthopedic hospital director, Dr. Chen Ruwei, led a surgical team which took cartilage from Xiao’s ribs, and sculpted it into the shape of the 3D printed ear. This process was much simpler than if they had to merely base their ear construction on a 2-dimensional X-ray. Once the cartilage was shaped into an almost identical match to Xiao’s normal left ear, it was attached to her head in a process which involved ensuring that there was a sufficient blood supply to the new tissue.  Once attached all the surgeons needed to do was cover it with her own skin and stitch things up.

ear2

Xiao was discharged from the hospital just 2 days ago, and is making a full recovery at home. However, she still does not have a normal looking ear quite yet.  This will take some time, as the ear itself will continue to grow and form on the side of Xiao’s head.

“The next step is to wait for the skin flaps and cartilage to grow together, a process which will take about a year,”Tong Tinghui explained. “After that, we do two operations. The second phase of the operation involves us being required to ‘dig out’ the ear from the mass of skin, and angle it so that it is symmetrical to the left ear.”

After these surgeries and some healing time, Xiao will have two normal looking and functioning ears.  So next time you are looking in the mirror, give an extra glance to those odd protrusions on the sides of your head, and be thankful for the ears you have.

What do you think about this incredible story? Do you think 3D printing will continue to grow as a technology for better plastic surgery? Discuss in the 3D Printed Ear Models forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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