This is a continuation of a mini-series I started about my journey with microtia. If you don’t know what microtia is or haven’t read the first post yet, click here.
I had two reconstructive ear surgeries when I was 11 and 12 years old in Taiwan. There are three primary options for ear reconstruction: rib cartilage, MEDPOR (synthetic material used as framework covered by body’s own tissue), or silicone prosthetic ear. Back in 2003, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now so my only option was to do the rib cartilage ear reconstruction. This surgery is a two part process. Sometimes it can consist of two to five surgeries including minor adjustments but the basic surgery is two.
The First Surgery
The surgery involves taking rib cartilage from my body, shaping and piecing it together to create the framework for my ear, and then placing it beneath my scalp where my ear should be. The surgeon took skin from my scalp to lay over my rib cartilage ear, so there’s a big zig zag going down one side of my head.
It was my first time having surgery and the thought of going under and being asleep the entire time kind of terrified me. What if I didn’t wake up? What if I woke up in the middle of the surgery? Will I be dreaming? Do the surgery rooms look exactly like they do on television? I had many thoughts running through my mind.
As I was wheeled into surgery, the realization really hit me that I was about to go under the knife. The operating room was cold and dim – pretty much what I expected. The nurses were very friendly and made me feel more at ease by making conversation with me. Then the anesthesiologist came over, put a breathing mask on me, told me to take deep breathes, and count down from 10. By my third or fourth breath, I could feel my eyes close and BAM, I was totally knocked out.
The next time I woke up was when the surgery was over. I didn’t dream; it was just black the entire time. Waking up felt very chaotic because everyone was cleaning up and a nurse was telling me what was going on. The next thing I knew I was puking everywhere. This happened every 10-15 minutes for the next 24 hours. It was brutal. Retching made me tear up because of how painful it felt.
I stayed in the hospital for two days after my surgery. I was bedridden and needed help for the smallest things. My mom kept me company and helped me drink water, eat, clean my face, etc. The only form of entertainment I had was the TV – which let me tell you – was boring. So time passed really slowly. When you get rib cartilage taken out of your body, that area becomes pretty sore so I couldn’t be active or laugh too hard because of the pain. After about two months, there wasn’t much pain anymore. The rest of the healing process was waiting for the wound to close up and for the swelling to completely subside.
The Second Surgery
Once the ear heals, the second surgery consisted of lifting the ear away from the scalp by taking another section of my rib cartilage. Each case is different, but it’s close to impossible for your new ear to look exactly like your normal ear. I was unable to follow up with my surgeon in Taiwan because I lived in Thailand and could only go back over the summer for surgery. This could be the reason why I had to get a major third surgery instead of doing minor ones throughout recovery.
Because I now had surgery experience under my belt, I knew what to expect. I didn’t throw up this time! Either my body got used to the anesthesia or they gave me anti-nausea meds. The recovery in the hospital was just as unpleasant because of the pain and the feeling of helplessness late at night. I’d lay awake in the dark unable to fall asleep because I couldn’t get comfortable. The positions I could lay in were very limited and I couldn’t move without feeling pain.
My recovery experience was very similar to my first one, so I won’t bore you with the same details.
I remember seeing my ear for the first time and feeling disappointed. I expected it to look exactly like my right ear because that’s what the surgeon and my parents told me. My ear was swollen for a pretty long time, so I told myself it would look more natural after the swelling subsided. Because of that, I was still very self-conscious and hid my ear from everyone.
Even though the shape of my ear was an improvement, in my mind it was still noticeably different. I felt paranoid that everyone could tell and would stare at it. It was a fear I faced many times – sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I didn’t. In middle school, I wanted to try out for the soccer team but didn’t because I was too afraid that if I tied my hair up, everyone would know about my ear. However I pushed out of my comfort zone in high school and tried out for the soccer team. I’m proud of myself for overcoming that fear to do something I enjoyed.
In the next post, I’ll talk about my transition to finding my confidence in college, my decision to have a third ear reconstruction surgery and get a hearing aid.
What’s something you were self-conscious about and overcame? I’d love to know!