It’s often easy to take the little things for granted — like being able to wear sunglasses or tuck iPhone headphones into our ears. Some people, like one 9-year-old named Kieran Sorkin, are born earless.
Sorkin was born with microtia, a condition that involves undeveloped ears and deafness, with the upper parts of his ears missing and only small portions of his earlobes adorning each side. He was also born deaf and has to wear hearing aids in order to get by. But he had always longed for a regular pair of ears like the rest of his friends. “I want people to stop asking me questions,” Kieran, who is from the UK, told the BBC. “I’d like just to look like my friends.”
Sorkin’s mother, Louise, also longed for her son to be accepted as a normal child: “He’s a very sociable boy and has longed for this operation for years,” she told the BBC. “I don’t want children bullying him because he’s different. I just want him to be accepted like everyone else.”
Microtia can affect either one ear or both ears — and it affects about 100 children per year in the UK. It’s a congenital disorder that has to do with an undeveloped pinna, or external ear. Aside from rib cartilage graft reconstruction — the procedure that ultimately repaired Kieran’s ears — patients born with microtia can also get their ears reconstructed by a polyethylene plastic implant or a prosthetic ear.
The Sorkins turned to Great Ormond Street Hospital, located in London, for help — and the surgeons there agreed to do reconstructive surgery for the 9-year-old — in which they would mold the cartilage from his rib cage into ears. Consultant plastic surgeon Neil Bulstrode created stencils in the shape of Kieran’s mother’s ears, since he didn’t have any other mold to work from. “When a patient has one ear we can match the new ear to that,” Bulstrode told the BBC. “Fortunately Kieran’s mum has very pretty ears so that should work well.”
During Kieran’s operation, the surgical team removed cartilage from six of Kieran’s ribs, then cut and shaped them into the form of ears. They then placed them into pockets that had been cut into the sides of Kieran’s face, tucking them under the skin, and suctioned the skin down to wrap it tightly around the cartilage and voila — ears were formed on the operating table. To see the surgery in more detail, view the BBC video here.
Now grinning toothily with shaggy hair, Kieran is excited to feel more accepted in the world — and to wear headphones and sunglasses.
The surgeons believe that reconstructive or cosmetic surgery can have a significant psychological effect on patients who are disfigured, especially when it’s completed at a young age: “If you can change the confidence of a patient at this young age, you can change their whole trajectory in life,” Bulstrode told the BBC. “You see this when they come back. It’s a huge boost for them.”
But procedures involving invasive surgeries like rib cartilage removal are complicated and risky — and soon, scientists hope that stem cells will allow ears to be grown in an easier way. One London hospital is currently working on growing noses, ears, and blood vessels with stem cells. “At the moment, children who need new ears have to go through a really invasive procedure involving taking cartilage from their ribs,” Dr. Michelle Griffin, a plastic surgeon working on making noses and ears in the London lab, told CBS. “Ears are harder to make than noses because you have to get all the contours right and the skin is pulled tight so you see its entire structure.”