Cape Town - For most of her life, little Cassidy Sitella of De Doorns endured ridicule from her peers and hid from others because she was different – she was born without ears.
The Grade 3 pupil from Nuwe Hoop Sentrum in Worcester was born with a rare congenital deformity, microcia – where the external ears are underdeveloped or non-existent. But this week the 10-year-old’s life has been changed.
Thanks to reconstructive surgery performed at Tygerberg Hospital, she is to have ears.
In a five-hour operation, doctors fashioned her first ear.
The surgery was performed as part of Smile Foundation’s Vodacom Smile Week.
The foundation is dedicated to arranging free corrective surgery for children with facial anomalies.
One in 750 children in South Africa has been born with a facial anomaly.
Before the operation, Cassidy had only tiny lobes in place of ears and depended on a hearing aid to assist her poor hearing.
Dr Alexander Zuhlke, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who operated on Cassidy, said although having ears would not improve the girl’s hearing, it would go a long way in improving her image and boosting her self-esteem.
“She’s always been seen as different by others and was probably teased all the time,” he said.
“Kids can be very cruel to each other and being teased constantly can have a very negative impact on her psychologically.”
Zuhlke explained that the procedure of making the ear involved opening a pocket under Cassidy’s skin.
Cartilage was taken from Cassidy’s ribs, carved into an ear framework and placed into the pocket under the skin.
“We have also put a tube under to suck the skin into the cartilage to form an ear. The cartilage will get its blood supply from the skin,” Zuhlke said.
“For now the ear will lie flat against the face. [When] a second-stage operation is performed, we will lift it up into the shape of an ear.”
Zuhlke said the wound was expected to heal in two weeks.
Because of the pain associated with the complex surgery, Cassidy’s second ear is to be constructed in six months.
Cassidy’s mother, Cathleen Sitella, said she couldn’t wait to see her daughter’s “normal ears”.
“She was teased so much by her peers that she wore her hair in a way that covered her ear area,” Sitella said.
“She didn’t like to play with others because other children always mocked her about her looks and poorly-developed speech. I’m so happy that she will look like other children.”
Moira Gerszt, chief operating officer of the Smile Foundation, said more than 1 000 children had had corrective surgery since the organisation was launched 11 years ago.
The operations, which are performed in partnership with tertiary hospitals around the country, had not only encouraged skills transfer, but had alleviated theatre backlogs in these hospitals.
“This Smile Week is one of our biggest for the year and just in time for the festive season,” she said.
“It’s the perfect gift – not only a brand-new face, but also an opportunity in life that these children would ordinarily not have due.”