SAN ANTONIO (AFNS) --
Looking in the mirror, Marine Capt. Ryan Voltin couldn't get past his ears. Not that they were strange looking, but that they were there at all.
He just wasn't used to seeing them.
The AH-1 Cobra pilot lost his when the helicopter he was flying erupted in flames during a training accident last year. The fire severely burned the captain's face -- to the point that his ears simply dissolved.
"I was conscious the entire time," he said. "And I remember thinking that I shouldn't be alive."
But, he was, because of the quick actions of fellow Marines on the ground, the captain was airlifted out of the area and to a local hospital within minutes of the accident.
"They saved my life," the captain said. "I wouldn't be here today without them. I would've died for sure."
Since that day, the captain has undergone 20 surgeries -- some to repair damage to his hands and face and one to amputate his left leg below the knee -- and hour after hour of physical therapy.
Today, though, the captain is trying on a new pair of ears -- prosthetic ones to replace those he lost the day of the accident.
"With the technology we have today, we can actually make ears for someone," said Col. (Dr.) Joe Villalobos, the maxillofacial prosthetics program director with the 59th Dental Group's Training Squadron. The squadron is located inside the McGowan Dental Clinic at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
The "ear manufacturing" process began with Colonel Villalobos' team taking a plaster cast of Captain Voltin's head. These casts were then sent to the maxillofacial prosthetics lab, where a technician reconstructed a set of ears that closely resemble the captain's original ones.
"We use photographs supplied by the captain and the casts of his head to try to get the same shape and size of the original ears," Colonel Villalobos said.
The ears are crafted using a silicone mold and are affixed to the patient's head with an imbedded implant that holds the prosthetic ear in place using magnetism. This helps the ear stay on and also makes it easily removable.
"These prosthetics only have about a two- to three-year life," Colonel Villalobos said. "So a patient will replace them numerous times throughout his or her lifetime."
Once the lab is satisfied with how the prosthetic ears look, they invite the patient back to try them on. For Captain Voltin, the experience is a surreal one.
"The ears are awesome," he said. "But over the past year and a half I haven't had any, so seeing them on now is weird. I've just gotten used to how my face looked without them."
Still, the captain is excited about the procedure, and amazed it's even possible.
"It will definitely give me some more definition and framing to may face," he said. "And it's another step in my recovery."
Once Captain Voltin is happy with a set of ears, he will undergo surgery to place the implants in his head that will hold the prosthetics. And, before the ears are placed on for the final time, they will be painted to match the captain's skin tone.
"It's a small detail that makes a world of difference," said Raul Carmona, a dental laboratory technician who helps create prosthetic ears.
The prosthetic world has a bright future. Already technology exists that allows doctors to scan a patient's head, take an image of one good ear, flip it and make a mold that can be used to create a matching ear on the other side.
The lab is also in the process of establishing an "ear" library -- a database of varying shapes and sizes of ears scanned from volunteers.
"The goal is to be able to look at a patient, see what type of ears they originally had and find a match in the database," said Capt. (Dr.) Angela Stanton, a maxillofacial prosthdontics fellow in the training program. "Then we can place them on a computer model and see how they look without having to make the ears first. This will skip a lot of the processes we go through now and streamline the procedure."
Ears are an important, though often overlooked part of the human head, Colonel Villalobos said. For someone who doesn't have any, this procedure is a good boost for their self esteem.
"It definitely helps them," he said. "It helps how they look and how they feel about themselves."
Cosmetic as they may be, these prosthetic ears do more than enhance the patient's appearance.
"There have been studies that show these prosthetics do help people hear better," Colonel Villalobos said. "And I've had patients who say the same thing. It's like when you cup your hands to your ears and it helps you hear better. This is the same concept."
Functional or cosmetic, it doesn't matter to Captain Voltin. He's just happy to have the chance to have new ears and get on with putting himself, and his life, back together.
"The day of the accident, I never would've thought I'd be here now trying on a pair of ears," he said. "In one sense it's a little thing, but in another sense it's a big thing."
For Colonel Villalobos, the ears aren't just ears either; they are tangible items he can provide to warriors wounded in service of their country.
"I think I get more out of the treatment than they do," he said. "It's nice to give something back to these guys who have sacrificed so much of themselves. This is definitely the most satisfying time of my medical career."
Meanwhile, Captain Voltin glances at himself in the mirror one more time. The ears, which at first looked out of place and alien, have grown on him.
"I like these," he said. "Let's put them on."
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