SALT LAKE CITY — Four-year-old Kai Sherwood's big day arrived. "I'm getting a new ear," he said, sitting next to his mother at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Kai's prosthetic ear, printed on a 3-D printer, is a medical marvel that will help him fit in with his peers when he starts kindergarten next fall, his parents hope.
His parents adopted him from China. He's been missing an ear since birth, a twist of fate, his mom said, that made it harder for him to find new parents in his own country.
"He was found on the side of the road at what the doctors think was two days old," said Hansi Sherwood, Kai's mother. "He was going to be raised up in the orphanage and just age out of it if he wasn't adopted."
Kai's new ear, printed at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, is formed from a chalk-like powder and binder. It's a mirror image of his existing ear, taken from the computer. 21st-century medicine that will help Kai make friends more easily.
"He is starting to notice he is different from everybody else and people are looking at him. 'Why does his big brother's glasses get to sit on his ears and he's got to wear a band?' and all that," Sherwood said.
Dr. Paul Tanner of the Huntsman Cancer Institute said the future of medicine lies with 3-D printing. It's cheaper, faster and more precise than old methods of making prosthetics. It will change Kai's life.
"There's a lot of teasing and stuff that goes on," Tanner said. "We're just trying to make the social interaction a little more friendly."
The 3-D printer hummed as TJ Ferrill of the J. Willard Marriott brushed away the excess powder to find Kai's new ear, much like an archaeologist on a dig.
He is starting to notice he is different from everybody else and people are looking at him. 'Why does his big brother's glasses get to sit on his ears and he's got to wear a band?' and all that.
–Hansi Sherwood, mother
"If you were to print pages of paper that had different outlines on them and cut away around those outlines and stack those pages, you've got a 3-D object," Ferrill said. "That's what's happening here."
Back at HCI, Tanner made a silicone ear from the plaster mold and painted it to match Kai's skin.
Kai's mother hugged her son. "Today is huge. Absolutely huge," she said.
The moment of truth arrived. Tanner prepped the ear with medical glue and attached it to Kai's head. A perfect fit.
"Oh, handsome boy. Look at your ears," Sherwood said. "Put your glasses on."
Kai turned toward the mirror. He saw himself for the first time, whole. A huge smile appeared. His eyes lit up.
"Do you like it?" Sherwood asked.
"Yes," Kai answered.
Tanner treasured the moment.
"When it turns out well, it's fun for me to see their reaction," he said. "When they see themselves with two ears, that's really fun to see."
Tanner crouched down and Kai ran into his arms, enveloping him in a hug.
"Come here, buddy," Tanner said.
Now Kai can wear regular glasses just like other kids. His ear, so life-like, no one would ever know the wonder, and love, it took to create it. Heather Simonsen is the health reporter for KSL 5 TV. She's been featured in O Magazine and the New York Times, Salt Lake Magazine, Utah Style & Design and local newspapers. She was a spokesperson for the Olympics and is the mother of three.