DALLAS TWP. — Kaitlyn Sledzinski recalls when her mother asked her to do a cartwheel. She also remembers failing. And trying again. Instead of giving up and using her lack of a right arm as an excuse, she was motivated to succeed.
And succeed she did.
First in gymnastics, where she mastered cartwheels and wound up winning 30 medals in competitions in Pennsylvania and beyond through her vault and floor routines.
Then in soccer, violin and academics — and seemingly anything else she put her mind to.
That ability to overcome and accomplish has led Sledzinski, 19, to study occupational therapy for a career that someday soon will let her provide for others what she received the first dozen years of her life.
When choosing a major for college, the Scranton resident knew she wanted to help people. She initially went into the physical-therapy program at Misericordia University in Dallas Township. After a semester she switched to occupational therapy, and she said she knows she made the right choice.
As a girl, Sledzinski traveled to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia for biweekly therapeutic sessions with an occupational therapist. Looking back, she had no idea those sessions served a greater purpose. “When I was young, I didn’t know I was in therapy,’’ she says. “I was just playing,” she said.
Because Sledzinski was born without the lower half of her right arm, coping is all she’s ever known. She probably would have found it more difficult if she lost the limb later in life, she said. It also helped that “most of the people I grew up with didn’t treat me differently.’’
“I really didn’t notice anything,’’ she added.
Bullied in second grade
There was a bully in the second grade who did notice, however. He was the first person to cause her to realize she was different.
“That’s when I was having a hard time with it, because a boy was picking on me.”
But then came the challenge from her mom, Chris, to perform a cartwheel. “I couldn’t do it, and it upset me,” Sledzinski said. “I just kept trying. It didn’t take me very long before I could do it.”
That was just the start of allowing things to roll off her back. “I used to care about what people thought of me but not anymore. Now I push myself,” she said, noting there are times “I forget I only have one hand.”
“Anything I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve been able to do,” she said with a smile.
Though she has a prosthetic arm, she rarely uses it, other than to play the violin. Mostly, it sits in a closet at her parents’ house in West Scranton.
She said it brings too much attention to her, and she just doesn’t need it.
For a long time, before her confidence level grew, she would try to hide her arm, either by putting it in her pocket or having a friend walk to her right so it was slightly obstructed from view. But as she aged she became less self-conscious about her arm, and hiding it became a rarity.
While she might look different, Sledzinski said, it doesn’t mean she has to act differently. She hopes that mindset will resonate with her future patients when she becomes an occupational therapist.
“I want to be someone’s hope,” she said.
She’s had complete support from her parents, Chris and Bob, 16-year-old sister, Morgan, and two older step-siblings, she said.
The occupational therapy program at Misericordia is very competitive. Grace Fisher, the chairwoman of the department and an associate professor, praised Sledzinski for her dedication and courage.
“Kaitlyn is a highly dedicated and responsible occupational therapy student,” said Fisher. “She is truly devoted to helping others. Her independent, thoughtful and helping spirit are sure to be an inspiration to those who receive occupational therapy services from her in the future.
“I am very glad she is in our OT program,” she said.
Next on Sledzinski’s list of challenges is to learn to drive a vehicle with a standard transmission — a stick-shift.
She has no doubt she’ll be able.