EarWell helps shape infants' ears without surgery

July 28, 2011 7:41:38 PM PDT
Every year thousands of infants are born with small congenital defects that alter the appearance of their ears, but now a Bay Area hospital is introducing a simple device that can transform the shape of a newborn's ear without surgery.

If you're a newborn like Lucas Yi, you're going to inherit a few family traits, maybe your mother's eyes or your uncle's chin or just maybe, your father's ears.

"Mine are a little more pointy like elf ears, but he definitely seems to have inherited pops and grandpa's ears a little bit," said Mark Yi, Lucas' father.

In Lucas' case, the family trait resulted in more of a flop. A condition that left the tops of his ears folded over. It's not a huge problem, but still a small deformity.

"I asked my husband, and he said, 'Oh, when I was young, all of my friends made fun of me,'" said Kate Yi, Lucas' mother.

"We see abnormalities of the ear cartilage when a child is born," said Rohit Khosla, M.D.

The Yi's were referred to Khosla, a plastic surgeon with Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. He recommended a new device called the EarWell, which he says can correct abnormalities ranging from mild to severe. First customizable fittings are arranged in the plastic housing, which is then placed over the ear.

"So what we're able to do is we're able to shape and mold the cartilage to a much more normal appearance," said Khosla.

He says the key is that the device must be placed in the first few months of life. The stage when the cartilage in a newborn's ear is still soft and malleable.

"What we've learned is we can do this very effectively in the first two to three months of life. So it's very critical we start treatment early," said said Khosla.

As a child grows, the cartilage thickens, and any change becomes permanent. The Yi's scrapbook maps the eight weeks that Luca's wore the EarWell.

"After two weeks it was easy, and then time goes fast," said Kate.

And since no surgery is involved, there are no scars, meaning Lucas might never notice his subtle transformation -- unless, somebody pulls out his baby album.

Khosla says surgeons have long had the ability to mold infant ears, but the process required them to build a custom mold for each case. This new system is FDA approved and flexible enough to treat a wide variety of ear shapes and conditions and it's covered by insurance.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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