Spring Lake girl mauled by raccoon to get new ear

ROYAL OAK, Mich. (WZZM) -- For the past two months, 12-year-old Charlotte Ponce has been growing an ear — one shaped from cartilage around her ribs — on her right forearm.

This week, a decade after a pet raccoon mauled her face as she lay in her crib, the Spring Lake girl will have the new ear extracted from her arm and attached to the side of her head in the last of a series of major surgeries to rebuild much of her face.

Taking a break from her doll, Carly, she unwrapped the bandage around her arm Wednesday at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak — something she's used to doing these days for those who ask.

"You can definitely see the shape of an ear in there," said her mother, Sharon Ponce.

Charlotte and her parents, who have three other children as well, made the three-hour drive from west Michigan on Wednesday morning for what most likely will be a 10-day stay in Royal Oak.

The pet raccoon had climbed into infant Charlotte's crib for a bottle that had been left with the baby, said Sharon Ponce. Most likely, the milk had trickled down the baby's face, Ponce said.

"The pet raccoon got into the house, and she had a bottle propped up in her mouth. And we assume that the raccoon was after the milk, because it ate her nose all the way back to her ear," she said.

"She was lucky to survive," she added.

Ponce, 54, and her husband, Tim, 63, a factory worker, gained custody of the infant after the attack. The state terminated the biological parents' rights.

The Ponces said they've lost track of all the surgeries, some of which have been to reduce scar tissue.

Already, Charlotte's nose was rebuilt with skin from her arm and forehead as well as cartilage from her ribs. Her cheeks were reshaped with fat from her abdomen, and her upper lip was repaired with tissue from her lower lip.

The latest procedure — this one to replace the ear destroyed in the attack — began in April when Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate, a plastic surgeon at Beaumont, removed cartilage that connects Charlotte's ribs to her sternum.

He reshaped the malleable tissue into a roughly C-shaped framework of an ear, then inserted it under the skin of her arm in hopes that the skin would mold over and around the cartilage framework.

On Thursday, Chaiyasate will extract it from her arm, and the framework and skin will be attached together to the side of her head. The skin that is then missing from her arm will be replaced with a skin graft, most likely from her groin area.

The surgery is expected to last six to eight hours, and the Ponces plan to stay near the hospital so Chaiyasate can monitor the healing process.

The plastic surgeon also will connect vessels that will carry oxygen-carrying blood to the site.

"We do the plumbing work so the new ear stays alive," he said. "It's all about the circulation."

Because Charlotte can already hear through a hole where her ear used to be, the latest procedure is more to "restore form and function" — so she'll be able to wear glasses if she needs to, for example, Chaiyasate said.

Though plastic surgeons have repaired or constructed portions of ears previously, this surgery is rare in that both the skin and the framework of the ear had to be rebuilt. Thick, gnarled scar tissue from the raccoon attack would not support a new ear on its own, Chaiyasate said.

On a nearby hospital bed Wednesday, Charlotte was dressing and redressing her doll, fidgeting and then flopping over the bed — apparently unfazed by reporters and hospital staff that were there for her arrival.

Last year, there were six surgeries to rebuild her nose.

From now on, any surgeries would be minor in comparison — most likely as her face changes through normal aging. They will further smooth out scarring, Chaiyasate said.

The Ponces were impressed by Chaiyasate the first day they they met him in 2012, Sharon Ponce said as Tim Ponce shook his head in agreement.

The doctor sat on a doctor's stool and, rolling up to Charlotte, he asked her what she wanted. Her parents were stunned when the normally shy girl began talking with him so freely, her mother said.

"He said 'I can build you a nose.' And we said 'What about an ear?' He said 'I can build you an ear,' " Charlotte Ponce said.

The transformation has been "absolutely awesome," she added.

Charlotte's friends have seen the ear under her skin, although Sharon Ponce tries to keep it bandaged so that Charlotte is reminded to be careful with it.

"They just say, 'Wow, that's cool,' " Charlotte said.

She's already planning to wear a "high pony tail" more often, said Charlotte, who with her friends likes to play with each other's hair. She wants to be a beautician one day, she said. For now, she'll try to heal fast so she can return to gymnastics.

She already has earrings, some donated by Chaiyasate's other patients who had heard about her story.

One pair — among her favorites — are tiny roses. Her middle name is Rose.


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