My Two Years Without An Ear
I lost my left ear in an accident almost four years ago. Only recently have I been able to feel like myself again.
I spent 26 years of my life without giving much thought to my ears. In retrospect, they were a lovely pair. When I lost my left one I could not help but notice that my remaining ear is a gorgeously elaborate piece of master design. The intricate spiral is found throughout nature in the emanating curve of a seashell, the coil of a vine, and the weather patterns of clouds. This is not easily re-created.
I lost my symmetry when I lost my ear. It took two years and four surgeries to get it back. Cartilage was harvested from the left side of my rib cage to build the ear, some of which was stored in my abdomen for the six months between the two major phases of the reconstructive surgeries. I now have a three-and-a-half-inch scar beneath my left breast, a five-and-a-quarter-inch skin graft from the upper right-hand side of my butt, and another skin graft from behind my right ear, which runs the whole length of the ear. It took seconds to lose my left ear and more than 10 hours of surgery to get it back. I always thought that if I elected for plastic surgery it would be for bigger lips or a smaller nose, not some elaborate replacement for a botched appendage. Having now experienced it, I wonder how anyone chooses major surgery for aesthetic reasons.
I lost my ear one afternoon in July 2011. I was walking south in the crosswalk at 86th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan when an SUV collided with my body. The driver raced away as I lay bleeding in the street. A trauma center doctor spent nearly five hours stitching but couldn’t save my left ear, which was removed in surgery a week later.
My girlfriend Sam — now my wife — used to tell me that she’d leave me if I ever lost a limb. This was her unusual way of telling me I was perfect. We lived together on the Upper East Side. She worked in publishing and I had two jobs, as both a nanny and a waitress, while I prepared to enter graduate school that fall. I worked all the time. One night, before the accident, I was crossing the street and thought, If this car hit me I could miss my shift. I immediately regretted thinking it. I wasn’t someone who could be wiped out so easily.
I was eager to start my MFA program at the New School. I knew that after a few directionless years I was ready to put my adolescence behind me and move forward with my aspirations as a writer. I was ready to quit my job as a waitress so that Sam and I could plan our future. I was ready for serenity. Instead, when I awoke in the street with a whimper, there was chaos.
By late summer the stitches around my missing ear had dissolved and the skin was scarring over. I was lopsided. I squinted in the summer sun as my sunglasses slid down the left side of my face. I wore my hair in a daily side-braid that draped over my shoulder, until one morning I stepped out of the shower and reached for my blow dryer. I wanted to look normal. I wanted to look like me. The scabs on my face had faded into rosy patches and the stitches in my left brow were invisible. I applied makeup and walked to meet friends for lunch. I felt naked as my hair lifted in the breeze to expose the tender skin where my left ear had been. I imagined, “People are staring!”
The initial loss of my ear was an injury out of a Greek comedy with my loved ones as the chorus. I didn’t dare consider it a tragedy. My mom gesticulated as she declared, “Friend, Roman, countryman, lend me your ear.” If someone wanted my attention, I gave a smile, a nod, and an “I’m all ear.” The laughter was usually followed with a “Seriously, Laura, you are so strong.”
But I didn’t feel strong. In the months following the accident I would have one hand in my jewelry box feeling around for a watch or a ring when my pinkie would hook onto the curved back of a dangly earring. Some days this was not unintentional. Some days I purposely opened the fourth drawer in the wooden jewelry box to hold up the earrings with long wooden beads that made a soft jingle when I moved my head. I’d run the tips of my fingers along the paper-thin edge of the gold-plated leaf of a pair that my sister had bought me one birthday, and I’d stare through the peach and blue glass of the beads on the earrings I had bought in Barcelona while studying abroad in college. It was usually the wooden beaded earring that I held in my hand as I walked the few steps to the mirror. I turned to my side and slid the earring back through the hole in my soft, flimsy right lobe. I’d smile, as if for a photo, before shaking my head — just a little — to listen to the jingling one final time, before retreating to drop the earring back in the drawer. I told myself it was important to keep the piercing in my right earlobe open, that maybe I would be able to pierce my new ear. My new ear. I treated it like a pregnancy. It was something for which to prepare.
At the grand jury trial of the man who hit me, I met a woman who had witnessed the accident. She was a civilian employed by the New York Police Department who volunteered to testify on my behalf. I didn't remember anything, but she told me that the force of the car threw me into the air. I landed facedown and skidded in the street. “You didn’t move. There was a man screaming, ‘She had the right of way! She had the right of way!’ No one touched you.” The woman held up her pen — balanced between her thumb, her pointer and her middle finger — and she flipped it through her fingers, showing me how my body had spun through the air. Then she said, “I thought to myself: Someone is about to get a call that her child is dead.”
I had gone alone to the courthouse, bringing only Mom’s advice. “Don’t dress too nice, Laura Leigh. Don’t carry a nice bag. You don’t want them thinking you’re spoiled or that you’re absolutely fine.” She dragged out the word absolutely, emphasizing the ooh sound. I did not want to overthink this, so I told myself this was a typical weekday morning. I wore my hair in its usual side braid, drawing just enough attention to the obvious.
Everyone — the arresting officers, the detective, the witness, and myself — testified alone. The 18-year-old who hit me and fled the scene wasn’t required to be present in court. I wanted to hear the testimony of the arresting officers. I wanted to know what the driver said when they pulled him over, how he lied. But my questions remain unanswered. Before I left, I shook the officers’ hands and thanked them shyly. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t feel like a victim: I wasn’t raped. No coma. No broken bones. I could walk. I could laugh. I was lucky. I reminded myself that there’s nothing emotional about a typical morning.
Later, the assistant district attorney called to tell me the jury had motioned to indict the driver, which meant that criminal charges would be brought against him. He assured me he would call me with the outcome.
What I already knew was that the driver faced criminal charges because he fled the scene — not because he hit me, and not because he had failed to yield and I had the right of way. I did not want his bad judgment to have power over me, so I shrugged when asked about him. Jail time for him would serve me no purpose. I focused on my own life; I was now in graduate school, working part-time and preparing for major reconstructive surgery.
An audio test confirmed that my hearing was unaffected. Though the outer ear funnels sound waves into the ear canal, any changes in my hearing were undetectable. I could live comfortably without my ear, but its loss created a problem when I wore glasses or tried to brush my hair out of my eyes. Without an ear, my hair fell into my face, but I didn’t want to secure my hair back and reveal my deformity.
Before my accident I knew nothing about ear reconstruction. My doctor explained to me that these surgeries are usually performed on children who are born with birth defects. Sitting in the plastic surgery waiting room at the hospital one afternoon, I looked around and scanned each face to find its defect. For the first time ever I sized up the ears of strangers: Too big. Too small. Too many piercings. Hers stick out. His are pointy. Oh, that woman with the diamond studs has a perfect set of lobes. Sometimes if I’m sitting in a room full of people and I’m feeling distracted, I’ll realize that I’ve missed the conversation going on around me because I’ve been staring at everyone’s ears.
When my doctor finally decided that I was ready — based on the progress of my initial healing — he scheduled the seven-hour reconstruction for mid-March 2012, when I had a week off of school for spring break. All I had to do beforehand was stay healthy. My parents came to stay the night before surgery. The four of us awoke before dawn and I scrubbed my body with medical soap, then my mom French-braided my hair and we hailed a cab to NYU Langone Medical Center.
In the small prep room, I wasn't nervous. In fact, I felt worse for my family, who would spend their day waiting anxiously while I lay unconsciously oblivious. I had a breathing tube down my throat and a catheter between my legs when my surgeon carved an incision through my skin, my upper abdomen muscle, and into my rib cage.
For the first 24 hours of recovery, my head was wrapped in a stifling helmet of white gauze. I found my voice and breathed a meek “Thank you” when my surgeon walked into my room the next afternoon to unwrap me. I noticed two white wires, side by side horizontally about an inch apart, coming out of my neck below my ear, attached to test tubes with murky brown-red liquid inside. Ignoring these drains, my surgeon leapt into the air and held his hand up for a high-five. He was thrilled with the ear, which I had yet to see for myself.
My shared room was on the women’s floor, next to the maternity ward. With maternity full, some of the new moms were moved into rooms down my corridor. During my hospital stay, my family would slowly lift me out of bed, gather my IVs and attachments, and walk me in a loop around the hallway, at the nurses’ urging. During my walks, a new dad would occasionally pass by, with or without his champion wife, and the elation on his face, when he spotted my serpent wires, would fade to reveal a look of horror. I was released after three days in the hospital.
Weeks later, when the swelling had eased, I pulled my hair back and looked in the mirror. Although my doctor warned me that the ear wouldn’t be complete, I was disappointed with the results. It resembled an ear, but it was flush against my skull. My head remained uneven. What would have been my earlobe was attached to my jawline. In the moments when I couldn’t catch my breath or sit up, when the Percocet did not stifle the pain and I cried silent tears, I told myself, “This wasn’t worth it. I should have remained earless.”
Six months after the first surgery, the ear was surgically moved away from my head with the remaining rib cartilage and another skin graft. Now it sticks out like my other ear, and after a final surgery I have an earlobe that looks natural, though to the touch it is hard and inflexible. To this day I am occasionally surprised when I reach up and touch it, but when I glance in a mirror I see I have my symmetry back.
The year following that accident was the weirdest of my life — everyone I knew was being too nice, telling me how great I looked, how strong I was. My reply was always the same. “What else would you do?” None of us know what we’re capable of until we’re tested. I dealt with the situation because there was no other option.
In retrospect, this was the toughest period. In my attempts to avoid feeling, I ended up with an unsteady pattern of bad behavior. I picked fights with loved ones. I grew unreliable and selfish. I had always considered myself fortunate — a self-confessed Happy Girl — and this brazen reminder that life is fleeting felt unnecessary.
I was in a writing program but could not write a word about my experience. I transformed from the friend always up for a good time to an emotionless robot. My relationship was reduced to a ticking clock: presurgery, surgery, postsurgery. Sam driving me home from the hospital. Sam helping me into the shower. Sam insisting I eat. Sam tucking me into bed. I told no one that the various parts of me “borrowed” to make my ear were the toughest to accept. My young body was damaged goods, and I was angry about it. I felt like a member of some macabre club of freaks. Finally, I decided to see a therapist.
Her office was on the first floor of an Upper East Side doorman building. Even in winter she kept the window open and a box of tissues next to the couch where I sat. She spoke in hushed tones and made sympathetic faces, but I didn’t want soothing. I wanted her to yell at me: “Be grateful! Stop whining!” During my first session she told me that I needed to grieve the loss of my ear. When I laughed, she asked if I thought it was funny. “Yes,” I admitted. “It’s ridiculous. Who loses an ear?”
Telling my therapist how pissed off I was felt naughty and freeing. I even admitted that I hated my new ear. I felt ungrateful, but I really hated it. I was of two minds: When I didn’t feel lucky I felt guilty, and when I felt tired or cheated I thought I was being selfish. I only wish I had been a little easier on myself in my moments of weakness. I should have allowed some guilt-free tears. What I will remember most from this time in my life will not be the fleeting physical pain but the emotional dichotomy of being both embarrassed by my injury and ashamed of my sorrow. I did not want to make room for grief.
I was given the opportunity to write a statement for the sentencing of the teenage boy who hit me, but by the time the clerk returned my call it was too late. He had been sentenced that morning: probation. I rarely think about him now. He responded with cowardice in a scary situation, but I'm still convinced he’s the exception; I feel unquantifiable gratitude for the strangers who testified for me, for the doctors who worked to put me back together, and for the family and friends who were by my side during my hospital stays, who put up with my anger and tenderly washed the blood out of my hair after every surgery.
I have a mistaken impression of the period after my accident as a time of isolation. Even when I write about the surgeries I describe the drains, but not how Sam gently emptied them every day, or that my mom pulled a chair into the bathroom and sponge-bathed me during my hospital stays, or how my friend rubbed ice on my burning body as my skin itched from the morphine. There was only one moment when it was just me, and that’s when I first became conscious while lying in the street after I was hit.
I see my scars every day and I consider the toll that they’ve taken on me mentally. I’m a patchwork now. I allow myself an occasional moment of sadness. With my surgeries behind me, these moments grow progressively fewer. My new ear, constructed at my hairline, grows brown fuzzy hair around its top rim. I apply scar cream to my body in the hopes that the marks will fade. I sleep with my head on a travel neck pillow, as not to put pressure on my ear. There is something that feels like a foreign object attached to the left side of my head. Because it is not flimsy like a natural ear, I have trouble wearing hats and helmets, and when I hit my ear with a hairbrush, pain sears through my skull. But when I tuck my hair behind my left ear and it doesn’t immediately fall back into my face, I feel like myself again. I even convinced my doctor to pierce my new ear, and Sam bought me diamond earrings for my 30th birthday. “You earned them,” she said, as I admired my reflection in the mirror.