One of the first things you might notice about Katie Atkinson is the unique piercing she has through her upper ear. The silver arrow goes straight through the cartilage, and she’s constantly asked about how painful it was going in. “It always makes me laugh,” says 22-year-old Katie. “I just play along and tell people I didn’t feel anything because I have a high pain tolerance.”
She’s being honest in saying she felt no pain; her ear is actually a prosthetic. Katie was born with a facial difference called Treacher Collins Syndrome, which affects the development of facial bones and tissues. “I have small cheekbones, my breathing was affected and my ears didn’t fully develop on the outside,” she says. “I can hear fine, but only have little earlobes.”
Katie has undergone countless surgeries and procedures to address her condition. She says it often left her with a sense of questioning her abilities. “I wanted to go into nursing, but for a while I had it in my head that I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t properly wear personal protection equipment (PPE), like a mask. I thought my differences would get in the way.”
As a member of a support group in her late teens, Katie became connected with other people living with facial differences, some of whom had undergone reconstruction or received prosthetics. She says that was a light bulb moment. “I came to Sunnybrook in late 2017 to begin the process. I was starting my second semester of nursing school and I thought it was something I wanted to pursue for myself. It was the start of such a great experience.”
Sunnybrook’s Craniofacial Prosthetics Unit is one of only a few in Canada to create customized prostheses for patients who are missing part of their face as a result of illness, injury or congenital birth conditions. Katie says she felt like a co-pilot throughout the whole process, which took a few months to complete.
Her prosthetic ears are adhered daily with a special glue. Katie says she can’t believe how realistic they look, and how well they actually work in allowing her to wear the PPE mandated for her job. Now, during the pandemic, wearing a mask has also become important for life outside of work.
“Having the prosthetic has boosted my confidence so much,” says Katie. “I’ve been working as a nurse for about a year now, and I’ve proven my ability to care for my patients. This has been such an incredible experience, personally and professionally.”
She says she’s now looking into possibly getting surgical implants. Rather than using a daily adhesive, this would mean she could literally snap her ears into place every day. For anyone considering a facial prosthetic, Katie says it’s important to educate yourself about what options are available and do what’s best for you.
“I know it’s important to embrace our differences, but there are some days I just want to mesh with everyone else,” she says. “Because of COVID, masks are now a part of regular life, so having the prosthetic has been amazing.”
“My co-workers often say their ears get sore by the end of the day. I just smile and say, ‘I’m good’!”