2007-10-24 / Family

No more "Dumbo"

Cosmetic surgery helps children avoid teasing
By Sande Snead

Plastic surgery isn't just for adults anymore. Some parents are having their children's ears "pinned" to avoid teasing from their peers. Plastic surgery isn't just for adults anymore. Some parents are having their children's ears "pinned" to avoid teasing from their peers. You've heard of rhinoplasty, Botox and facelifts, but have you heard of ear surgery?

It's not that uncommon for women these days to go on "vacation" and come back looking more rested than a few days at the beach could provide, but now children are "taking a few days off" for plastic surgery, too. Summer vacation is a common time for Dr. Joe Niamtu and other area plastic surgeons to perform ear surgery on children.

"This is really the only cosmetic procedure I do on kids," said Niamtu. "Children who have protruding ears get ridiculed significantly by their peers, and it can affect their body image and self-esteem."

Niamtu usually likes to perform the ear surgery when children are 5-7 years old since ears have completed 85 percent of their growth by the time a child reaches age 5.

Elizabeth Smith* and her husband noticed early on that one of their twin girls needed to have something done for her protruding ears. Although their other daughter has more hair, both were already pulling their hair behind their ears, so the couple opted for ear surgery for Caroline and Katherine in August.

"We were trying to be proactive," Smith said. "We wanted to do it before they started school before they potentially encountered teasing. Kids can be so cruel. They will pick on you for anything. I'm sure the girls will be teased, but I'd rather it be for something they can control."

During an ear surgery procedure, children are given a light intravenous sedative and then excess cartilage is removed and/or the natural cartilage is repositioned. The surgery takes about 30-45 minutes per ear and is done in an outpatient surgery center.

"The procedure costs about $2,000-$3,000 and recovery takes about a week. The patient wears a headband for a few days [and] then at night for another week," Niamtu said. "Sutures are removed after about two weeks. Kids need to avoid contact sports for about a month afterwards, but you know, children are so resilient. They generally snap right back."

Dr. Hallene Maragh, a plastic surgeon in private practice at Columbia Retreat Hospital, cautions that there are some risks to the procedure as with all surgery.

"The biggest risks are bleeding and infection if the skin is not healing well or the skin is dying," Maragh said. "Another risk is that the sutures can pull out. But in general, surgery for protruding ears is routine, and it is something that can easily be treated."

Ear surgery isn't considered "routine" by some plastic surgeons though. The procedure is controversial in the field since some practitioners frown on performing purely cosmetic surgeries on children.

But despite the debate, Smith is happy that she and her husband decided on the treatment for their girls.

"I'm glad we got it done and over with before they were old enough to experience the anxiety of a surgery," Smith said. "I think they will thank us for it later."

Ear surgery is more common for boys. A Goochland County mother who prefers to remain anonymous said her 8-year-old son had the surgery when he was 5, and he doesn't even seem to remember it.

"Children in preschool were already making fun of him," she said. "He didn't understand, but as parents, you do. I talked to Dr. Niamtu about surgery, and he said the best time to do it is before kindergarten."

At the time of the surgery, this mother gave vague explanations to her son. She told him he was going to have surgery done around his head.

"He went under [anesthesia] around 8 a.m., and we took him home around noon," she said. "In the afternoon, he was asking to play with friends."

The day after surgery, Niamtu took the bandages off, but there was still gauze in his inner ear for two weeks afterwards. The family took him to Washington, D.C. for a week to tour museums and to see the sights to avoid questions from his friends. It must have worked. No one has asked about it since.

*Name has been changed.

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