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Cancer

Surgeons use woman's rib to rebuild ear, skull

Surgeons used rib cartilage to reconstruct a woman’s ear and part of her skull after cancer destroyed them.

Sherrie Walter, 42, from Bel Air, Md., had basal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, which forced doctors to remove almost her entire left ear and parts of her nearby skull. Her parotid salivary gland and inner ear canal also were removed.

"I didn't know how aggressive basal cell carcinoma could be,” Walter said in a news release. Walter’s cancer was diagnosed in 2008, but doctors removed her ear in 2010 when the cancer returned.

"When my doctors told me reconstruction was possible, I thought it was too good to be true; it sounded like science fiction," she added.

Dr. Patrick Byrne an associate professor in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said he has performed hundreds of ear and nose reconstructions – but the removal of Walter’s necessary skull bone structures, face and neck skin limited his options. She was not a candidate for a prosthetic ear.

Instead, Byrne used pieces of Walters’ rib cartilage, carving and suturing the skin with the help of a mold of Walters’ right ear. The skinless ear was implanted into Walters’ forearm, where it connected to her blood vessels. This allowed the skin to stretch and grow for four months.

In January, Byrne  - with the help of an intra-operative laser – was able to affix three of the largest blood vessels within the ear into complimentary blood vessels in the head.

"Patients must have the physical and emotional courage, and the patience, to deal with these exhausting procedures, and to recover and re-energize so they can proceed from one surgery to the next,” Byrne said.