Elijah Bell was born 8 years ago without ears, but you would never know that by looking at him today. As he starts second grade today, he’s holding his head a little higher and with a little more confidence, thanks to the handiwork of Dr. Ananth Murthy, director of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Elijah’s ear transformation has taken place over the past 3 years as he has undergone 5 surgeries with Dr. Murthy, who uses cartilage from Elijah’s own rib cage to craft the ears.
“Elijah was born with bilateral artesia microtia, a very rare birth defect that affects about 1 in 50,000 people,” said Dr. Murthy. “By the time you are 6 to 8 years old, your ears are pretty much full grown. Doing the surgeries at that age allows these kids to start their school careers with normal ears.”
Newborn hearing tests revealed early on that Elijah could hear, but he needed assistance and had a bone-anchored hearing aid in place by the time he was 3 ½ months old. He doesn’t have directional hearing, but his mom says he copes with that deficit very well.
“We quickly found Dr. Murthy and knew he was the doctor for Elijah,” said Elijah’s mom, Colleen. “At just 4 years old, it was going to be tough on our little guy, but we all had a common goal – big ears by kindergarten. Our family even celebrated the upcoming event with the ultimate big ear celebration – a trip to see Mickey Mouse!”
The family helped prepare Elijah for his journey by making a book to help explain what he could expect, touring the operation room, and procuring a stuffed teddy bear that would get “big ears” right along with Elijah.
“Dr. Murthy worked on his right ear first by harvesting cartilage from Elijah’s ribs,” Colleen said. “Dr. Murthy is a master craftsman. His product is simply amazing. He produced an ear from the cartilage that he slipped under Elijah’s skin just where the ear should be. Not too forward. Not too back. Not too big. Not too small. He’s a perfectionist.”
At the same time Elijah was having surgery, his grandmother was performing a procedure of a different sort on his stuffed bear in the hospital waiting room. She sewed a right ear on on to his stuffed bear, named Baxter Murphy after his grandparents’ 2 dogs.
“The next surgery was the same as the last, but this time on his left ear,” said Colleen. “Another rib graft, another recovery. But you know what? Elijah looked forward to it. He loved being at the hospital and took it as a vacation. Hospital time meant chocolate milk and cookies at every meal. Who doesn’t look forward to extra cookies and lots of movies?”
“Elijah was back to being a high-energy 4 year old within a week,” said Colleen. “He wore cups on his ears to keep them safe after the surgeries and eventually even wore some fake glasses to help separate those ears from his scalp as much as possible.”
Elijah had his final ear surgery on July 28. Dr. Murthy did final touch-ups to create the detailed hills and valleys of what ears look like.
“The body naturally wants to smooth everything out as it heals, so we always have to go back a couple of times to help create the natural curves of an ear,” Dr. Murthy said. “It is an artistic procedure.”
Elijah is also an artist, loves to play basketball and is thriving in school. He attends Frazer Elementary School in North Canton, where he fits in as just another student.
“Through it all we have tried our best to give Elijah the confidence he needs to love himself, to be proud of who he is and to overcome the obstacles in his way,” Colleen said. “He is still just a kid. He has been through more than what some adults have been through in his young life. He talks about being a monster truck driver, an animator for Disney and a scientist, but what he does not yet understand is how much of an impact he has had on others watching him go through this journey being brave, strong and finding joy.”
Frazer Elementary School Principal Beth Kline-Mohn says Elijah is just one of the gang at school.
“Elijah began this year excited to show his new ears to his friends,” said Kline-Mohn. “They will certainly be amazed, but I am sure they will quickly run down the hill together toward the climbing gym – a pack of little boy energy – as they begin a new year of friendship and learning.”