LANCASTER (CBSLA.com) — Chelsey Thomas of Lancaster became famous in the 1990s as the little girl who couldn’t smile.
The world watched as young Chelsey checked into Kaiser Woodland Hills for surgery that would change her life.
“The media attention was unbelievable,” said mom Lori Thomas. “I had magazines and talk shows. People recognized her everywhere we went.”
Seven-year-old Ella Riley is practicing blowing bubbles and lifting the left side of her lower lip, and like Chelsey, Ella was born with a rare condition called Moebius syndrome.
That Chelsey and Ella could even meet was once unthinkable.
“When Chelsey was born, I was told by a geneticist you will never meet another person with Moebius syndrome,” Lori said.
But by going public, Chelsey inspired others like her to connect with one another at Moebius conferences like one recently held in Long Beach.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand,” says Chelsey. “Being treated like we’re ‘less than’ is I guess the most difficult part.”
While her surgery delivered on its most important promise – “I can smile,” she said with a grin – there are other things in people with Moebius that surgery can’t address.
“We can’t move our eyes from side to side; we can’t pucker our lips,” said Chelsey.
And that’s sometimes made it harder for Chelsey to connect.
“For a long time, I thought I was never gonna find anyone,” she says.”
But soon after her 25th birthday, Bradley Daniel came into her life. As the two started dating, Bradley discovered he loved her smile.
“She makes me smile,” he says. “She makes me laugh.”
At the end of last summer, they went for a hike.
“He said all these nice things and got down on one knee,” said Chelsey.
“And I asked her to marry me,” Bradley added.
“I look at her now getting married; I see her using that smile so much more now,” mom Lori said.
Chelsey says she’s happy not only for herself, but for what her story might mean for little girls like Ella.
“She can anything that anyone else can do,” she said.