Like most teenagers, Serenity Smolen is constantly learning, exploring and discovering what she does and doesn’t like. Some of the time, she encounters a learning curve.
When it comes to conquering new undertakings, Serenity, 13, is a pro. It’s something she’s done all her life. Serenity, who was born with congenital limb differences that affect both limbs on her left side, has worked hard to be independent and make her own decisions, especially those that involve her body.
A boost from an amazing support team
There was never a question of holding Serenity back from anything she chose to do. Her parents, Jane Davis and Andrew Smolen, were the backbone of Serenity’s support team.
“I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t coddle or do something for her,” Jane said. “I wanted Serenity to feel like she could do whatever she wanted.”
They turned to Akron Children’s department of rehabilitative services to help Serenity take advantage of cutting-edge prosthetics. There, Dr. Micah Baird, pediatric physiatrist and director of the pediatric physiatry division, oversaw Serenity’s rehabilitative care and prosthetic needs. To learn life skills training and self-care skills, therapists in Children’s pediatric occupational therapy, pediatric physical therapy and the Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center coaxed Serenity along. They celebrated enthusiastically with Serenity’s family each time she made progress.
“Going to Akron Children’s was always fun,” said Serenity, who spent 3 or more days each week in outpatient therapy until starting school. “I looked forward to it. Everyone was amazing, positive and helpful. The people I worked with helped me to discover different ways to do the things I wanted to do.”
Practice leads to confidence
Serenity’s journey to independence began in infancy with her first prosthetic leg. She learned to walk independently and ascend and descend stairs while wearing it.
From the beginning, Serenity was given the space and time to break each new skill apart and accomplish it on her own, leading to self-confidence. Over time, she became more active, taking tap and ballet, riding a scooter, swimming, skating, hiking, painting and drawing.
Lori Jubara, pediatric occupational therapist at Children’s, worked with Serenity to find ways to make therapy play-based while still working on the skills and goals that Serenity needed at home, such as dressing or bathing herself.
“Serenity learned to adapt to her body at a young age,” Lori said. “It was inspiring to see her learn to perform daily tasks like putting on her socks and shoes or cutting paper, using either a hook prosthesis or her left elbow as an assist. She had an innate desire to be independent.”
A prosthetic leg that keeps up
For growing kids, their prosthetics need to be re-fitted and re-sized every few months. It’s expensive and impacts a kid’s active lifestyle. When she outgrew a prosthesis, Serenity developed pain, blisters and/or intolerance to wearing it.
In first grade, the problem came to a head. Serenity had trouble running and hid her shoes to avoid gym class. Jane grew worried and spent sleepless nights looking online for help. She found Amputee Blade Runners, a Nashville-based foundation that provides free running prosthetics to individuals.
She sent an email, which led to conversations with its co-founder, who eventually invited Serenity to come and get fitted for a running blade. A month later, Serenity and her family arrived in Nashville for a week of fittings to ensure the socket provided a suction fit and correctly bore Serenity’s weight.
“As soon as she put the finished leg on, she screamed in absolute joy and took off running,” Jane said. “Seeing that, it was the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Serenity has gotten multiple blades from the organization, including customized components for tap dancing and daily wear at school.
A different girl in the best possible way
Since getting a blade, Serenity has completed a 5k and 1-mile kids run. While running isn’t her favorite activity, she can do this and more.
“We’ve watched Serenity evolve from shyness into an athletic, confident kid,” said Dr. Baird, whose mother also worked with Serenity through Akron Public Schools’ early learning program. “With the barriers removed, nothing holds her back. She’s looking ahead. It’s energizing to me, her Children’s care team and those who know her.”
As Serenity looks to the future, she plans to stay active and, maybe, use her writing, artistic and sewing skills in ways that empower people living with limb differences.
“I like when I see different people with missing limbs on television or in ads,” she said. “I’m not necessarily looking, so it’s cool when it shows up.”
She’s also learning to sew. Her ultimate goal is to tailor clothing to suit her body.