Kiwi teen's bizarre diagnosis: 'You have a plant growing in your ear'

When truth is stranger than fiction.

By Karyn Henger
When 17-year-old Eli Smit of Auckland complained of severe pain in one ear her mother took her to the doctor, suspecting an ear infection.
But what the GP from Shore Care, Takapuna uncovered proved that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction: The cause of Eli's pain was a plant growing in her ear.
"He looked inside my ear and said it looked like there was this really small piece of grass in there," recalls Eli. "So he went to get his small tweezers and magnifying glass and then he pulled out this one piece of grass, but then he was like 'oh no, there's more'."
A second blade of grass, about three centimetres long, was extracted - complete with seed bulb.
"He was really shocked by that," Eli says. "He said that it shouldn't have been able to grow in there. He could understand how the seed got in because it was really small - but what had grown was really big."
Eli reports feeling relief as soon as the plant came out.
"The minute he pulled it out my hearing improved - all of it - I just felt a lot better."
But she had developed an ear infection due to fluid in her ear drum and was given antibiotics.
It's thought that the plant had been growing in Eli's ear for about a week.
Eli had first noticed symptoms in the form of a rustling sound in her left ear. Every time she moved her jaw she heard the rustling but didn't think anything of it until about two days later when a pain so severe developed that she couldn't lie down on her left side or even open her jaw.
She told her mother, who took her straight to the doctor's.
The likelihood of this happening is extremely rare, says Auckland ENT surgeon Dr Michel Neefe.
In his 20-year career he's "never seen anything like it".
"I've seen cases of insects getting caught in ears, and sometimes they are still alive. But never a plant. Even on a global scale, I have only read of a couple of cases and they were both out of China."
The Clinical Director at Starship Children's Hospital, who is completing an MD at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, says it's unlikely the plant would have taken root and penetrated through the skin in Eli's ear drum because it would have "become too painful".
"To begin with, an ear drum might be an ideal environment for a plant," he surmises. "Because it's warm, moist and dark. But the roots would not penetrate through the skin."
Eli, who is "all good now", has kept the offending plant.
"The doctor gave it to me in a little container because he said I'd want to show my friends," she says. "And I do. Every time a friend comes over I say 'look at my plant'. I think it's really funny."