Like most fathers, Andrew Dellinger recalls his daughter's first steps, dropping her off at preschool for the first time and the first time she said, "I love you, Daddy."
The 28-year-old single dad from Denver also remembers when his daughter, Madison, was diagnosed with a vision impairment four months after her birth.
"After I found out, I was determined to do everything I could do to accommodate her," he said.
Like most 3-year-olds, Madison explores her environment with great determination and little caution. She plays on the swing set and in the sandbox. She rides her "Big Wheel."
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She is blind, though she has some degree of light perception, especially in high-contrast situations.
Her dad hopes a new stem-cell treatment not offered in the United States will dramatically improve his daughter's vision.
With the help of Living Word Ministries in Stanley, his resolve has spawned several community fundraisers. So far, friends, family and supporters have raised about a third of the $45,000 Dellinger needs to travel to China, where his daughter would undergo treatments.
"There's a good chance that she'll look at me one day soon and see me for the first time," said Dellinger.
Madison has septo-optic dysplasia, a congenital malformation, and optic nerve hypoplasia, where small or poorly developed nerves connecting to the brain cause blindness. It also disrupts sleep patterns, slows learning skills and is one of the most common causes of blindness in children.
His hope is to raise enough money to visit China in October for the surgery. Giving up is not option, he said, but if he has to, he will postpone the surgery until the money can be raised.
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can for her," said Dellinger, a salesman at Dellinger Building Supply. In China, Madison would undergo eight treatments with stem cells extracted from umbilical cords, or umbilical cord blood, of healthy births. Considered a medical waste product, they are not the more controversial stem cells harvested from embryos.
Treatments that will be performed by Beike Biotechnologies (www.stemcellschina.com) were introduced in 2007.
Beike is sort of a stem-cell matchmaker company that connects patients worldwide with hospitals in China and elsewhere that are pioneering stem-cell work for patients with a variety of medical conditions.
"I know it's not considered a cure, but just by talking to parents with kids who've seen success - every one of them has had success to a certain degree - I know I'm doing the right thing for my daughter," said Dellinger. "By talking to them, I learned it could really work."
Dellinger said he spent hours researching his decision. He's talked with families in the United Kingdom and Colorado through online correspondences. He's paged through medical books at the library. He's done research online. He's even talked with area medical professionals as well as doctors in UNC Chapel Hill's optometry department.
Other than short-term pain, he said the surgery appears to have relatively few side effects. It has been performed on children as young as 10 months to 14 years, with a better chance of some improvement the earlier it is performed, he said.
Madison's pediatrician, Ali Mofrad of Lincoln Pediatric Clinic, said he has doubts about its success but is all for it on a personal level. However, he must advocate U.S. standards and practices, and right now there isn't enough research in U.S. medical journals for him to advocate the procedure. A moral debate also is delaying its acceptance in the United States.
Dellinger said the love for his daughter helps keep his spirits up.
"There's nothing like it," he said. "I love her to death. I've spent countless hours of research on the pros and the cons, and the pros well outweigh the cons - by a long shot."
Some clients see results after the first treatment, during the eight-treatment session, but the full recovery time is slated for a year, he said.
If the procedure is a success, Dellinger plans to use their success story and advocate for the treatment by keeping his fundraising efforts ongoing.
"After dealing with her, you realize what you take for granted, and it just seems right to want to give back."