Eleanor's Hope: An experimental stem cell treatment

Most parents will tell you they would go to the ends of the earth for their kids.

But would you go halfway around the world for an experimental stem cell treatment that might not work?

In a special Medical Moment, we update you on the story of a Goshen couple that travelled to China with the hope of giving their young daughter the gift of sight.

Part 1 - An experimental stem cell treatment
May 12, 2009

We first met little Eleanor Habecker last June.

She was born with a condition called optic nerve hypoplasia.

"Her optic nerve is too small, and so it means her brain is okay and her eyes are okay, it's just the optic nerve in between," explains Liz Habecker, Eleanor's mom.

Eleanor could only see about six inches in front of her.

"The hardest part is that she can't look at us in the eyes," Liz admits. "That's really hard."

Eleanor's father, Philip Habecker, and a very pregnant Liz decided to travel around the globe to Hangzhou, China, for an experimental procedure involving stem cells.

"They do stem cell infusions from umbilical cord stem cells from healthy live births," Philip explains. "They take umbilical stem cells and they do one infusion into the blood to make sure that her body can handle it, and then they do four more into the spine."

Their hope for Eleanor is that the stem cells will help her optic nerves develop and that she will be able to see more like other children.

At 17 months, Eleanor still can't walk without hanging onto her parents or furniture.

We gave the Habeckers one of our cameras to take to China so that they could help us document the procedure.

"We're here in L.A. right now," Philip narrates in one of the video entries. "We have a layover, we have two hours left, and then we're off to China."

The end of his sentence is drowned out by a foreign voice making an announcement over the airport's public address system.

After a short rest, they continue on their journey.

"We're in Hong Kong now, and once we get a little sleep we'll be able to appreciate the fact that we are in another country," Philip explains on camera.

It's a country much different from the United States in both topography and in the treatment they are offering Eleanor.

The family waits for the next leg of their trip, to Hangzhou and a special stem cell treatment center on the 20th floor of a hospital that the Habeckers will call home for the next five weeks.

Eleanor will soon be tested to make sure her body accepts the umbilical stem cells.

But for today, the Habeckers will get accustomed to their hospital room and get some sleep after a little playtime with Eleanor.

They hope to give their daughter a window to a world she has never been able to see.

Part 2 - The results
May 13, 2009

After one more short flight to Hangzhou the Habeckers got to the hospital that would become their home for five weeks. A home with a much different view then Goshen, but a home where stem cells could help Eleanor's optic nerve develop.

After settling into their room, Philip and Liz, with the help of an interpreter, tell doctors about Eleanor's medical history.

Eleanor's first stem cell infusion would go directly into her bloodstream as she sat safely in her daddy's arms.

Afterwards, this 17-month old toddler did something every parent waits for -- she took her first steps.

"Are you going to go to the couch?" Liz asks Eleanor. "Go to the couch. Yeah!"

Philip marvels at what he sees.

"This is two days after the treatment and maybe it's a coincidence. She's never done this before," Philip says.

A confident Eleanor is clearly pleased.

Progress, but Eleanor still had four stem cell treatments and these would go directly into her spine, so doctors sedate her.

Eleanor's treatments were spaced a week and a half apart so Philip, Liz and Eleanor were able to see some of China's amazing sights.

Her treatments done, it's time to come home to Goshen.

Nearly a year later, Eleanor has a new sister, and loves to play outside.

She isn't seeing clearly, but Philip and Liz are convinced their trip to China improved Eleanor's vision.

"She's acting like she can see much better now than she could before we left," Philip says. "She wouldn't sit through a movie before and now she'll sit down and watch a movie."

And playing games many of us take for granted.

"I think hide and seek was a huge thing," Liz says. "Friends of ours said, when you left for China you left with a little baby, and we came back with a toddler. She was just a different little girl."

A little girl who now sees color, loves to sing, and go for walks.

Eleanor may not be able to see like most other children, but they know she sees and they will take what comes ahead, one step at a time.

While the Habeckers are convinced Eleanor's eyesight is much better, they also plan to teach her to read Braille.

The price tag for the trip was $35,000. That includes Eleanor's treatments, their five-week stay in the hospital, and their round trip airfare to China -- money they were able to raise through fundraisers.

Their thanks to all who the people who helped? Priceless.

For more information about the Zhejiang Xiaoshan Hospital, which was featured in this story, click here.

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