American dream: A Doll to reflect her unique story

Friday, January 21, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 3
By Rhiannon Potkey

Emery Hiser with her American Girl doll, which was customized to have the same limb difference.

-- Photographs Provided

The gift came in the mail at just the right time.

Emery Hiser was born with a congenital amputation and is missing the lower half of her right arm. The 4-year-old was just beginning to understand she was different from others when a package arrived at her doorstep in Knoxville last spring.

Emery opened the box to find an American Girl doll with a limb like hers, made just for her.

“There’s something really special about watching your child see themselves in something as simple as a doll,” says Breanne Hiser, Emery’s mother. “This was the most realistic thing she has that’s like that, and she’s finally old enough now to be able to recognize that she has a limb difference.”

Breanne Hiser and her husband, Kellen, the assistant athletics director for digital and creative strategy at the University of Tennessee, discovered Emery’s limb difference a few months before she was born.

The ultrasound technician couldn’t find her hand during a few prenatal appointments and sent the Hisers to UT Medical Center to get confirmation from a higher detail ultrasound machine.

“It was definitely a shock to us,” Kellen acknowledges. “They told us we did nothing wrong. It was just kind of a freak thing where 1 in 5,000 births experience this. But it was still a lot to process.”

The Hisers didn’t know what to expect when Emery was born and prayed they would find the strength and wisdom to help guide her through life.

“I remember how difficult it was to get through school, especially with social situations,” Kellen adds. “My only worry is she is going to have to approach things a bit differently, and there could be things that pop up when she may be working slower than other kids or kids may have something to say. But I am hoping she will have the attitude of a problem solver.”

Searching for families in similar situations, Breanne Hiser discovered the Lucky Fin Project. Based on the movie “Finding Nemo” and Nemo’s lucky fin that was smaller than others, the nonprofit raises awareness and celebrates children and individuals with limb differences.

That is how Emery was able to receive her doll.

Susan Battisti-Borgmann was born without fingers on her left hand. The Illinois resident never had a doll that looked like her when she was young, and she wanted to make one for a child with a limb difference.

Emery with her father, Kellen Hiser, UT’s assistant AD for digital and creative strategy.

She purchased an American Girl doll with the right hand damaged and asked Lucky Fin if they had a child that may be a match. Battisti-Borgmann received photos of Emery and went to work fixing the doll to look like Emery, even spending hours trying to get the skin tone perfect.

“It made me happy doing it and I just wanted to do a really good job,” Battisti-Borgmann says. “It was the first one I had ever done for someone else, and I was really hoping I got everything right.”

The doll was an immediate hit with Emery. She named it Olivia, and she carried it everywhere and slept with it at night.

Emery even drew a portrait of herself with the doll that showed both of them with their limb differences.

“It was huge for me to see her do that. She had never done that before,” Breanne recalls. “For her to be talking about it excitedly was really emotional.”

Battisti-Borgmann was elated to hear how much Emery loved the doll and how much self-confidence it provided at that stage of her life.

“When I grew up, I didn’t have anything like me around. I didn’t know other people with any limb differences and my kindergarten teacher looked at me like I was the only one on earth and I was doomed in her eyes,” Battisti-Borgmann says.

“Kids need more support and to have a doll that looks like them, especially someone as young as (Emery), can provide validation just to say to them, ‘You are OK. You are not the only one that looks like this.’”

Emery is starting to notice more people with limb differences. She saw one of the Rockettes, Sydney Mesher, perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and has been following Hansel Emmanuel, a one-armed high school basketball player whose dunks have gone viral on social media

“The doll was really an early player in making her more aware of what makes her a little bit different,” Kellen explains. “She takes pride in it now and the doll was kind of the jumping off point to let her know there are things like her out there in the world. That’s exciting.”

Emery has not let the limb difference hinder her spirit. She loves to play and run around. She is taking dance classes, and will likely pursue organized sports soon.

Many of the worries her parents had when Emery was born have dissipated. Things they assume will be obstacles rarely hold Emery back.

“She proves me wrong every time,” Breanne says. “I try not to let myself stress too much. She is going to be fine. This is her normal. It’s not like she has to re-learn anything.

“She is just learning it the way she has to.”