In this photo taken June 23, 2010, Master Sgt. Todd Nelson visits with Dr. Joe Villalobos during a visit to makes adjustments to a prosthetics ear at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio.
Nelson was injured in 2007 by an explosion while serving in Afghanistan.
Patients at Lackland are treated with a combination of cutting-edge technology and carefully hand-hewed prosthetics.
Using specially designed computer equipment, technicians can turn an MRI into three-dimensional molds and create custom-fit pieces to replace missing jaw bones or sections of skull for implant. The lab has even done it remotely, creating a perfectly fitting replacement for one-third of a patient's skull at a hospital in Balad, Iraq, Villalobos said.
Not everyone who loses an ear, eye or nose tip is interested in getting a new one. After the memory of what you used to look like begins to fade, "you start to accept who you are," said Nelson, a 37-year-old Army mechanic from Evergreen, Colo.
And because burn patients typically undergo dozens of surgeries (Nelson is at 43 and counting), many are simply too procedure-weary to seek prosthetic ears or noses.
But Nelson said for him, "one of the things that bothered me the most aesthetically was the missing ear."
To create prosthetic ears, the lab uses cameras that generate 3-D images for technicians to make molds. While adhesive can be used to keep prosthetic ears in place, younger patients like Nelson often opt for titanium implants that allow the prosthetic to magnet on.
Although it's taken years of painstaking work, and his eye and ear are not flesh and blood, Nelson said they've given him the ability to face the world without shocking it.
"Honestly, people really don't know it's artificial," said Nelson, whose injuries three years ago included third-degree burns, a skull fracture and broken jaw. "In casual social interactions, I see much smaller cases where people stare."
Nelson's ear took about two years to complete, in part because his caregivers had to fight growth of scar tissue that kept covering the titanium implants and creating uneven skin on the side of his head.
Nelson said he was shocked at how realistic the fake ear turned out even after going through multiple fittings and coloration sessions to match his skin tone and freckles.
"I do feel like I have the best-looking one ever made," he smiled.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought a new kind of patient to the facial prosthetics lab at the Lackland Air Force Base: wounded warriors, who have recently suffered heavy burns and multiple traumas. Meet Master Sgt. Todd Nelson...