Ancient children’s bones are the typical subjects of scans at Hugo Cardoso’s lab. Five-year-old girls, who are very much alive, are not.
In October, the archeology department at Simon Fraser University welcomed Nelson’s Zillah Shulman who arrived with her mother Milenia. The visit came after Cardoso received a unique request from a California surgeon that the lab to take images of Shulman’s left ear with its high-end 3D scanner.
Zillah was born with the rare congenital condition microtia that prevents ears from fully developing in utero. She wears a hearing aid on the right side of her head where her fully developed ear should be. The scans at SFU would be used to create a new prosthetic ear for her to live with.
Cardoso, SFU’s chair of the archeology department, usually works with human remains. His team scans bones to create permanent digital copies that can be studied and preserved while the originals deteriorate. But Cardoso’s lab is the only facility in B.C. to own the type of scanner needed to build Zillah’s ear, and he was happy to help.
“I didn’t really think much about it. I had the equipment. I work at a public university, I see the work that I do as public service. The work that I do, and the research that I do, is paid by Canadian tax dollars. It was kind of obvious to me that why not?”
Barak and Milenia Shulman have been working toward giving their daughter a new ear since she was one year old.
Zillah was born at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver with omphalocele, a condition that leads to infants being birthed with organs sticking out of their belly buttons. The family was prepared for this and knew in advance she would arrive with her liver partially outside the belly. What surprised them however was the tiny nub on the right side of Zillah’s head where her ear should have been.
Even though his daughter could live a healthy life without her right ear, Barak wants Zillah grow up without being bullied for her condition. He’s noticed she’s already thought of ways to defend herself if that happens.
“A child has so many things in regards to development and learning about social things that we didn’t want anything else to to make that more complex than it already is.”
In B.C. new ears for children with microtia are made using cartilage taken from ribs. The surgery, which was invented in 1958, is available at BC Children’s Hospital and covered by the Medical Services Plan for children 15 and younger.
But surgeons won’t perform on children until they are about 10 years old, and the Shulmans don’t want Zillah to wait another five years for the procedure.
The family opted instead for a surgery that isn’t available in Canada. Dr. Sheryl Lewin, a plastic surgeon in California, uses 3D scans of patient’s ears to create a nearly identical replacement for the side that is underdeveloped.
The procedure is expensive — the Shulmans say it and related travel expenses will cost approximately $100,000 — but doesn’t require any cartilage taken from Zillah’s ribs. It won’t fix her hearing, but the ear is made bigger than it should be at Zillah’s age so she can grow into it and won’t need any replacements.
But first Lewin needed scans of Zillah’s ear. That led to a call with Cardoso, who uses the same handheld Artec Space Spider scanner that Lewin has.
When Zillah visited SFU’s Juvenile Osteology Group lab on Oct. 16, she sat in Milenia’s lap while research assistant Nicola Murray scanned hundreds of images of her left ear to send to Lewin. The process took a little over an hour.
“Nicola was very I think touched and felt really good to be involved in a project that has nothing to do with the work that she’s been doing with me, but that has a real visible and tangible and immediate impact on people’s lives,” said Cardoso.
Now that the scans are complete, the Shulmans will next travel to Torrence, Calif., for the surgery on Jan. 10. Afterward the family will stay near Lewin’s clinic for a month of post-op appointments.
Barak and Milenia are looking forward to Zillah being able to do little things people take for granted, like wearing sunglasses. They also think her confidence will improve, and a weight will be lifted off the family.
“It’s this massive hurdle that we’ve been watching on the horizon for years and years and years,” said Barak. “And now it’s around the corner and we’re about to take it and then put it behind us.”
They’ll also follow through on a promise made to Zillah for something she asked for but wasn’t possible without the surgery.
She’ll get her first set of earrings.
Donations to help the Shulman family with medical expenses can be made online at https://www.gofundme.com/f/w5urth-surgery-for-zillah.