Blind teen waits for results of stem cell surgery

Salmon Arm teen Jody Hanna underwent the procedure that could give her sight Jan. 11 and specialists are very hopeful of success.

Eye on future: Jody Hanna must now wait to see if a recent stem cell procedure will give her the gift of sight.

It’s now a game of wait and see – literally.

Salmon Arm teen Jody Hanna underwent the procedure that could give her the gift of sight Jan. 11 in Phoenix, Ariz.

And specialists who harvested her own stem cells in the morning, injecting them in her optic nerves in the afternoon, are very hopeful of success.

“It went really well but it was a hard day,” says Jody’s mom, Alicia. “The morning was difficult because they injected two bags of fluid into Jody’s abdomen to separate stem cells from fatty tissue and that was the part that was painful.”

Always hopeful of collecting one million stem cells, doctors were delighted to harvest about 50 million from Jody.

“They got more so they are very hopeful she will gain something – but they don’t know what that is,” says Alicia. “They don’t know how much damage there was to the optic nerve. It really is a waiting game.”

And the waiting game could continue for another six months to a year.

“They did say the first thing we’ll notice is her cognitive ability, to be sharper with her conversation, listening more and trying to be part of other people’s conversation,” says Alicia. “When her optic nerve didn’t develop, a part of the brain didn’t develop either. So when she’s told a story, she can’t recite it back unless she’s told it several times. Then she remembers it because the memory part of her brain is so developed.”

Born with optic nerve hypoplasia, the part of Jody’s brain that didn’t grow is also the area that has to do with recognizing danger.

For example, Jody understands that fire is to be avoided, but if she were home alone and wanted to cook, she  would know enough to turn the burner off, but not that it would remain hot.

“She wouldn’t realize the danger of that unless she experienced it, it’s experience that teaches her,” adds Alicia, adding Jody also doesn’t understand the danger other people might pose. “She just trusts; it’s that innocent child in her.”

The part of Jody’s brain that governs vision has never worked before, so it has to work too, says Alicia.  In which case, Jody may see something, but the brain may not be aware of it at first.

“For Jody, the slower she gets it the better; she may start seeing something and not know, but she might reach out for it and kind of know it’s already there,” says Alicia, trying to explain the complicated process.

“The same with a shadow; she might see it and walk around it instead of through it. Those are the things we have to watch for.”

Doctors at the Stem Cell Rejuvenation Center in Phoenix have said Alicia and Jody’s education assistants will be the first to pick up changes in her ability to retain information because they spend the most time with her.

“They don’t see why she won’t gain something, but it will do that on its own time,” Alicia says, noting Jody in the meantime, is her usual happy self. “She keeps saying, ‘I can’t see yet, but hopefully.’”

Doctors told the family they try to do the procedure in such a way that it never has to be repeated, but  did agree if there was insufficient improvement, Jody might be a candidate for another try a year from now.

“That will depend on what she gets (in terms of vision) and whether she feels comfortable with it,” says Alicia.

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