JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff – Kaile Milton plays with her 14-month-old daughter, Skylie. Skylie recently had stem cell surgery in China to correct blindness caused by septo-optic dysplasia. Skylie and her family spent 28 days in China for her treatment.
Skylie Milton’s grandma held out a cracker while standing on the other side of the room.
“Come on, Skylie, come get a cracker,” she said.
The 14-month-old Billings girl whipped her head around, smiled from ear to ear and hobbled across the living room toward the snack.
Once Skylie got within its grasp, she reached out, took the cracker and brought it to her mouth.
It’s something she couldn’t have done just a few months ago when she could see only about a foot away.
Thanks to stem cell research, and $40,000 raised by the community to send Skylie to China for stem cell injections, the giggling girl can now see just beyond 25 feet.
“It’s just amazing, it’s awesome,” said Skylie’s mom, Kaile Milton.
Lying beside Skylie on the floor as she played with blocks, Milton still seemed to not believe her girl could see.
The doctors in China shared her amazement, Milton said.
“They were surprised she took to it so well,” Milton said. “Usually they don’t see that much progress that quickly.”
Because the type of stem cell therapy the family settled on is considered experimental in the United States, the family had trouble finding a doctor in the area who would support them. It was further research that led them to China.
Skylie received seven stem cell injections geared toward improving the her eyesight.
Skylie was born missing her septum pellucidum, the part of the brain that separates the right and left hemispheres. Without it, her optic nerves never fully developed, diminishing her eyesight.
In addition, doctors determined that Skylie suffers from septo-optic dysplasia, which affects both her eyesight and the hormones related to the pituitary gland. It affects about 1 in 10,000 births, according to the National Library of Medicine.
To improve their daughter’s eyesight, the Miltons settled on stem cell injections and then looked to the community for help. The response was overwhelming.
The person who stands out the most to Milton’s mind is Dana Lariviere of Billings, who volunteered to head a fundraiser that helped raise more than $11,000.
“We wouldn’t have made the trip without them all,” Milton said.
The family was able to stay in a room at the hospital, putting them close to Skylie during her 28 days abroad.
Most of the injections were given through her arm, though a few had to be given through her head.
“Watching the IV was horrible,” Milton said. “One day they had to poke her seven times, then eventually just had to put it in her head. But she took to it really well.”
To help soothe the child, the doctors would sing her “Old MacDonald” — in Chinese.
When she wasn’t receiving an injection, Skylie was undergoing rehabilitation treatments to help keep her blood flowing and the stem cells stimulated, including acupressure, electrical stimulation, walking training and cup therapy five times a week.
To continue her progress, Milton said they make sure to massage around her eyes and her head.
It’s unknown whether Skylie will need additional stem cell injections through the procedure, which is not available in the United States.
During Skylie’s treatment, the Miltons met two other couples going through the same procedure, both from the United States.
When they weren’t waiting in the hospital, the group was able to go into the city and take in the culture.
It was quite a shock, especially seeing strangers’ adoration for Skylie.
“We couldn’t even go to the store, it would take an hour to get down the aisle,” said Rel, the grandmother. “People were taking pictures with her.
“They were very warm and loving toward her; we couldn’t keep her away from everyone.”
Suffering from jet lag and exhausted from the daily procedures, the family mostly stuck to the hotel, watching movies and having pizza — and McDonalds — delivered to the room.
“It was definitely close quarters,” Rel said. “You don’t get to venture off too much by yourself.”
Skylie came home on Aug. 1, and not a moment too soon. The last few weeks of treatment were miserable.
It wasn’t because of the injections. Skylie was teething.
“She was not feeling good at all,” Milton said. “She was cranky.”
Now when she is fussy, all Milton has to do is start counting, holding up her fingers for her daughter to see.
Her crying calms down and changes to laughter as she starts clapping her hands, gets up and moves on to her next adventure.