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Becoming bionic: A new arm gave Brianna a whole new life

A muscle disorder severely limited 13-year-old Brianna. Now she’s strong, confident and independent.

13-year-old girl using her bionic arm to block the sun from her eyes
Brianna’s future shines bright. And now she’s ready for anything.

At 13 years old, Brianna Smith enjoyed doing normal teenage stuff, like going to school, hanging with her friends and siblings, and playing with her three dogs. She was a happy kid, always full of energy and ready for the next adventure. But for Brianna, every day brought an even bigger challenge.

Before Brianna was born, she was diagnosed with arthrogryposis, a rare muscle disorder that occurs in one out of every 3,000 live births. With this condition, some joints may not move much or may even be stuck in one position. In Brianna’s case, it severely limited the use of her legs and her right hand, making mundane tasks nearly impossible.

“When Brianna was born, we fully understood the reality of the situation,” explains Dan, Brianna’s dad. “Despite everything the doctors told us, we were determined to give Brianna the most fulfilling, active life possible.”

Sure enough, they did. At 1 week old, Brianna had surgery for her legs and began physical therapy for her legs and arm a few months later. When she was just 2 years old, Brianna started walking with leg braces—something the doctors said she would never do. And by the age of 3, Brianna was up and running, playing soccer and kicking the ball. She was even using her arm and hand a little, but still very limited.

13-year-old girl with a bionic arm shoots a bow and arrow
Brianna, the archer, with her eye on the target.

“Brianna has always been so strong-willed,” says Dawn, Brianna’s mom. “When she became interested in archery, her dad made special attachments for her bow and arrow, and now she never stops practicing. She never gives up, no matter how hard it gets.”

Facing adversity, Brianna persevered, but always felt insecure about her arm. “I’ve always been very athletic, but I stopped doing a lot of activities and sports because I got really self-conscious,” says Brianna, adding that she started having trouble at school and her grades suffered because of it.

Something needed to change. So Brianna began doing research. She read articles about her condition and found videos of young women with prosthetics, who were able to do extraordinary things—some gymnasts, archers and even Olympic athletes. Inspired by their stories, Brianna realized something like this could change her life. That’s when she decided she wanted a bionic arm—a prosthetic that can be controlled by your mind.

“When she approached us about it, we were terrified,” says Dan. “Our biggest fear was that once you do it, you can’t take it back.” But they understood how much Brianna wanted a better life for herself, and began their search for the right doctor. After being evaluated by other orthopedic specialists, the Smith family chose Cohen Children’s Medical Center at Northwell Health.

“We got an appointment with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Amaral, and we immediately noticed a difference in the level of care,” explains Dawn. “He sat Brianna down and had a real conversation with her. She was able to open up after being shut down so many times.” After speaking with Dr. Amaral and learning more about the bionic prosthesis, Brianna was confident it was what she wanted. She was ready.

The first step was presurgical testing, which included vital checks and blood work. She also met with a psychiatrist and therapists from BeBionic, the prosthetic company that custom-built her new arm. The entire procedure took approximately two hours. Brianna stayed at Cohen Children’s Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for two days, where she was cared for and monitored by physicians, nurses and clinical staff. 

Teenage girl with a bionic arm, laughing on her porch with her mother and father
From left to right, Brianna’s dad, Dan, Brianna and her mom, Dawn.

Living with her new arm, Brianna has a newfound confidence and is now thriving in school, where everyone thinks she is a superhero. She’s thrilled to be able to do simple things, like tying her shoes and cutting steak—things she needed help doing for the first 13 years of her life. 

She’s also more active than ever. Before becoming bionic, Brianna had about 10 percent mobility in her arm and hand. Now, she’s at about 80 percent. Brianna continues to go for physical therapy every week and works at home to gain even more muscle strength.

“Never let your disability get the best of you,” Brianna wants all kids to know. “We can do anything. We just do it differently—but we can do it!”

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