Girl born without ears just wants to wear earrings
Harriet Sanders desperately dreams of being able to wear earrings just like all the other little girls she knows.
The four-year-old from Tarragindi in Brisbane's south was born with a physical deformity known as bilateral microtia and atresia, which means she does not have ears or ear canals on either side of her head.
But her parents say a revolutionary plan to build her 3D-printed ears would grant Harriet her greatest wish and prevent her from a childhood of feeling different.
Harriet's mother Anna Sanders said the delicate surgery her family were crowd-funding to pay for would give her confidence as she grew older and help her feel that she looked the same as other children around her.
"Kids can be cruel, and when you are a teenager you can be very self-aware of any differences you have to your peers," Mrs Sanders said.
"She desperately wants to wear earrings … being able to assimilate with other girls."
While Harriet would continue to use her hearing aids after the surgery - the reconstruction does not restore hearing or create the ear canal - Mrs Sanders said her little girl would no longer have to wear her aids on a headband.
"When they do the operation with the ears they will implant half of that hearing aid in her skull so she will just be able to clip on the processor," Mrs Sanders said.
"It'll mean she can wear her hair in all different ways and won't have to wear a headband all of the time."
Even with private health insurance and Medicare, the surgery will leave the family about $70,000 out of pocket.
"It's a lot of money … but it's just going to be a huge difference for her," Mrs Sanders said.
"I haven't booked a date yet but we are looking for June next year."
Harriet's surgeon Dr Joe Dusseldorp said children as young as three years old could face difficulties over missing an ear, and the surgery was designed to give kids back their sense of self.
"If you look at people on the street and you don't look at their ears, they are not really a special feature of beauty. But, if you actually take away somebody's ears, it's like taking the frame off of an artwork," he said.
"It grabs your attention and you look there when you should be looking someone in the eye. It's not until you have ears that really stick out or are not there at all that people notice ears.
"It generally leads to a sense of self-image of self-confidence problems and it can be quite psychologically distressing for young children."
Dr Dusseldorp said children begin to notice their differences to other people when they reach school age.
"They start to question why they are different and whether anything can be done about it," he said. "Being part of that transformational process of giving kids back an ear is something I find quite rewarding and a lot of the families tell me it's a really transformational thing."
Dr Dusseldorp said there were a number of different ways of doing the reconstructive surgery but people were most interested in having custom 3D implants, which are made from a biocompatible material called porous polyethylene.
"That has little holes in it that the tissue actually grows into and then we cover it with skin grafts," he said.
"It camouflages really nicely … if nobody notices, I've done my job really well."
The polyethylene implant ear reconstruction surgery has been offered in the United States for more than 30 years, but only recently came to Australia with some additional refinements that are only currently available in the private hospital system.
"I had two kids that had this surgery last year that then went to their first day of school with a whole new sense of self-confidence, with a story that tells people around them that they are special rather than that they're different," Dr Dusseldorp said.
Originally published as Girl born without ears just wants to wear earrings