Fundraiser puts smiles on faces

By Andrew Pridgen

Appeal Staff Writer

From being the "girl who couldn't smile" to suffering an acute case of perma-grin, 7-year-old Ashlee Harris eagerly greeted attendees to a benefit hosted on her behalf Saturday morning at the Galaxy Fandango 10.

Ashlee was born with Mobius Syndrome, a rare birth defect caused by the absence or underdevelopment of cranial nerves that control eye movement and facial expression.

Last summer she underwent an eight-hour surgery at University of California San Francisco Medical Center to help correct the condition, and, in effect - put a smile on her face for the first time.

Saturday, she used her newfound expression early and often.

"It was just great," she said of the performance of hypnotist and comedian Dan K. "It was really funny."

Some 40 attendees looked on as Dan K got his seven temporarily catatonic charges to juggle invisible balls, play nonexistent instruments and mimic farm animals.

One of the audience members "put under" was Ashlee's grandfather, Fallon-based minister Brian Cuthill, who said being hypnotized was an experience "like none other."

"I'll tell you - it was real," he said. "I was focusing on a button on my shirt thinking, 'this guy's not gonna get to me'. To make sure, I told myself to keep rubbing my thumb on my button.

"All of a sudden, I look down and I can't move my thumb. Somewhere, it hit me, and I thought 'oh man, he's got me.'"

Grandparents Bill and Colleen recalled the first time they drove to San Francisco to see a doctor for Ashlee's condition.

"I just remember when (Ashlee) was a year old, the doctor said nothing could be done, I told Amy (Ashlee's mom) 'God will help, I know there will be an answer,'" Coleen said. "And now, here we are. We had faith and we kept on hoping; it's been a long road. But from seeing my daughter cry the day we were told nothing could be done, to standing here today - I just can't explain how we feel."

Saturday's fundraiser and celebration does not signal the end to Ashlee's saga; though the surgery was a success, her condition also affects her eyes and she's never been able to move them back and forth.

Ashlee's family is hopeful a similar "cranial re-animation" surgery for her eyes will someday be a reality. For her "smile operation," surgeons removed nerves and muscles from Ashlee's thigh and transplanted them to her face through an incision behind her ear.

The Harris family, who has insurance but is facing a six-figure tab for last summer's surgery, shared their gratefulness to the Carson community Saturday.

"We got people walking in and donating," step-father Tim said. "It was really a wonderful effort. From the Galaxy (theater) to Dan K; we're really grateful to everyone who showed up for us today.

You can help

The Harris family still welcomes donations. To find out more, or help contribute to Ashlee's medical fund, call Amy Harris at 450-0104 or send a check made payable to Ashlee Harris to 2189 Southridge Court, Carson City 89706, or in Ashlee Harris's name to UCSF Medical Center 500 Parnassus Ave. San Francisco, CA 94143.

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