Girl hopes to gain sight with trip to China for procedure

Sunday, April 6, 2008

SEDALIA, Mo. -- Rylea Bartlett can see the freckles on her grandmother's face and distinguish lip gloss on her mother's mouth.

The 6-year-old's progress has raised the hopes of another young girl who has the same optic nerve disorder.

Savannah Watring and her family are making arrangements to travel to China, where they hope an experimental treatment will give the 7-year-old sight.

"I can't help but get excited," said RaVana Watring, Savannah's grandmother.

Savannah was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, the leading cause of blindness in children, according to Cassandra Fink, supervisor of clinical trials at the Vision Center in Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

It happens when the optic nerve fails to develop in utero, but doctors aren't sure what causes the condition. Swedish researchers found that it occurs in 10.9 children per 10,000.

ONH can cause hormonal problems and developmental delays, but loss of sight is the only condition Savannah has experienced.

Savannah's family noticed early on that she rolled her eyes around a lot and that noisy places bothered her. At about 8 weeks, they noticed her eyes weren't tracking objects like normal babies' eyes do. A Columbia ophthalmologist confirmed what they had feared: Savannah was blind.

"I kept thinking it was something that could be fixed," RaVana Watring said. "And when they said it couldn't, and never, I fell apart."

The family's hope brightened in September, when they read a story in The Sedalia Democrat about a Missouri girl with ONH who began seeing after stem cell treatments in China. They contacted Dawn Bartlett, Rylea's mother, and learned her vision has been steadily improving since the treatment.

Savannah's family has started the process of traveling to China, where they're expected to spend about 30 days as she receives four to five stem-cell treatments. The stem cells, taken from umbilical cords, are injected into the spine and are expected to generate growth of the optic nerves.

The procedure is expected to cost about $50,000 and the family has started a fundraising campaign, already gathering around $20,000 through a dance, donation cans and sales of clothing and jewelry. A benefit dinner, raffle and auction are planned Dec. 9 in Tipton, Mo.

"We'll sell everything we have to get her there at this point," said Sherla Hagerman, Savannah's aunt.

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