Complicated, multi-step surgery allows boy to hear

December 4, 2010 3:48:38 PM PST
A first of its kind surgical procedure pioneered by a Bay Area surgeon is changing the life of an 11-year-old boy from Mexico. Diego Neumaier was born without ears, but thanks to the generosity of a neurotologist, a plastic surgeon, and some compassionate donors, the young man now has what he's always wanted.

Neumaier's most valued possessions are a handful of gold medals he has earned. They are a symbol of his victory in Mexico's national competition for young gymnasts and they are something he wants to give to his doctor, neurotologist Joseph Roberson. Neumaier says the metals are like gold and Roberson is like gold to him.

Neumaier was born without ears or ear canals, although his middle ear bones and inner ear are intact.

"Somewhere in development as the ear is starting to form or fold, and the ear canal starts to open or dissolve, that stops," says Roberson.

The condition is known as atresia and microsia and typically requires several surgeries to correct, but Roberson and plastic surgeon Dr. John Reinisch have pioneered a way to perform multiple operations the same day; it's about 10 hours in surgery, working together to create a new ear canal and ear.

This chance something Neumaier and his mom have dreamed of.

"It's a miracle for me, it's been 12 years since I've wanted my ears," says Neumaier.

He will do it even if his newly-constructed ears might bring him some discomfort.

"They say that if I get bit by a mosquito, my ear will swell just like everyone else's ears," says Neumaier.

"I've been so nervous about everything, but calm because I know he'll be in good hands with Dr. Roberson," said Neumaier's mother.

The surgery began early in the morning. First Reinisch began the construction of the outer ear. Then Roberson works to create an ear canal and eventually an ear drum for Neumaier, while Reinish continues his sculpting of the ear.

It was a team effort that combined seven surgeries into one day. Four weeks later, Neumaier was ready to have the packing removed and was given a chance to hear for the first time.

"If you had a light cotton ball in your ear canal, that's what he's hearing right now. For him that's a huge change because he's never heard normally, but we'll see over the next several weeks and months is that will improve and come up to an even better level," says Roberson.

Neumaier's indebted to both doctors, but had another favor to ask. He wanted the doctors to not forget his other operation since he plans to be back at Christmas time for his left year, which means he'll soon hear the roar of the crowd at his gymnastic competitions -- a distraction he welcomes.

Small Wonders Foundation covered the cost of the surgery and Roberson's Let Them Hear Foundation covered expenses for Diego and his mom. Both doctors donated their time. Diego will return to the Bay Area just before Christmas 2010 for surgery to create his second ear.


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