Laughter is Medicine

Kaitlyn Sledzinski, OT major

Kaitlyn Sledzinski, OT major

The combination of an inspiration comment and a brilliant smile enabled occupational therapy major Kaitlyn Sledzinski to overcome significant obstacles.

“I’d rather laugh about it than cry about it,’’ said Sledzinski and her mother Chris throughout the past 20 years. They communicate this message both literally and figuratively through their positive attitudes.

After gymnastics practice and competitions, violin rehearsals and recitals and the many other developmental stages in childhood, she’d repeat that meaningful phrase. Their saying was not born out of an ill-tuned violin or failing to stick a landing during a gymnastics floor routine, but rather from the condition known as congenital amputation that left Sledzinski without a right forearm and hand since birth.

The condition, according to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, is rare. Only one in 20,000 children are born with a congenital forearm amputation like Sledzinski’s, and one in 27,000 children are born with a congenital arm amputation. Congenital amputation, the loss of the arm and/or hand due to incomplete development at birth, is believed to be caused by bleeding or blood clots as the arm is developing before birth, according to the hospital.

The congenital amputation, she said, has been a blessing in disguise for the sophomore.

“I think it was about second grade when I really started noticing. That’s when I was having a hard time with it because a boy was picking on me. My mom, she told me to do a cartwheel, and that boy never bothered me again.’’

As a young child with an upper-limb deficiency, she led a very normal, active lifestyle. Aside from her therapeutic sessions with an occupational therapist every other week at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, she competed in gymnastics and learned how to play the violin.

“When I was young, I didn’t know I was in therapy,’’ she said. “I was just playing. Most of the people I grew up with didn’t treat me differently. My mom didn’t.’’

With her mother’s encouragement, Sledzinski joined gymnastics in third grade and traveled to and from practice and meets with her neighbor – another eight-year-old girl. One year later, she struck up an interest in the violin after participating in Francis Willard Elementary School’s music program.

Today, the results of her activities are obvious. Numerous shadow boxes hang on the walls in her bedroom, displaying the 30 medals she earned in gymnastics competitions in northeastern Pennsylvania and abroad through her vault and floor routines. They serve as a memento of her youth, but most importantly they remind her how “you can do anything’’ with a strong support system and positive attitude, she says.

“If you think you can do anything you can. If you want to do it, don’t let anyone tell you not to do it,’’ she said. “It’s very important to have a positive attitude and a strong support system in place. I’ve grown up to joke about myself because there’s always something happy.’’

Her extracurricular activities enabled her to travel to Bethlehem, Pa., Orlando, Fla., and many other interesting destinations in between as she performed athletically and artistically as a singer and violinist. Some of her performances were done at fundraisers, such as the Shriners. Her experiences led her to major in a health care specialty field. She feels her special circumstances will benefit her future clients in a myriad of ways.

“I feel like I have a better understanding than someone who has not had a disability or a condition,’’ she said. “It’s hard not to feel sympathetic. I’m going to feel that way for some people, but I’m also not going to let them convince me they cannot do something. I will help them find that confidence they need to have.’’

She plans to pursue a future working in pediatrics.

“I do get really stressed out sometimes,’’ she said. “I can only see good in the future and good coming from all of it.’’

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