She’s becoming something of a fixture in the world of major league baseball: Hailey Dawson takes the field nonchalantly, tossing her long, dark hair, and throws out the first pitch in front of thousands. She’s done it everywhere from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park in Pittsburgh to a World Series game in Houston.
She’s on a mission to throw the first pitch at every MLB stadium across the country. And she does it with a robotic hand, created using a 3D printer. Oh – and she’s just eight years old.
‘This kid owns it,’ her mother, Yong Dawson, told DailyMail.com. ‘Her hand – she owns it. It does not define who she is.’
Hailey was born with Poland Syndrome, a rare disorder in which people are born with missing or underdeveloped muscles on one side of the body. Hailey does not have a right pectoral muscle, which affected the development of her right hand – leaving her without most of her fingers.
Hailey Dawson, 8, throws out the first pitch with her robotic hand at a baseball game on Monday between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals; she plans to visit every Major League Baseball stadium to raise awareness about Poland Syndrome, which she was born with and which left her right hand underdeveloped
Hailey, with her mother, Yong, father, Greg, and brother, Zach; Yong says they are a ‘huge baseball family’ and Hailey came up with the idea to learn to pitch with her mechanical hand
Hailey poses with singer Ricky Martin, who she met during his residency in her hometown of Las Vegas
It was a condition her parents had never heard anything about beforehand – and they hope that Hailey’s cross-country, 30-stadium tour will raise more awareness of Poland Syndrome. According to the National Institute of Health, it occurs in 1 in 20,000 newborns – and actually affects males more than females. But the syndrome ‘may be underdiagnosed because mild cases without hand involvement may never come to medical attention.’ The cause remains unknown.
‘It’s a fluke,’ Yong said simply. She and her husband, Greg, found out early on in the pregnancy via ultrasound that there was an anatomical issue, but it wasn’t specifically diagnosed until after Hailey was born eight years ago.
‘When she was a week old, we took her to a pediatric orthopedic hand specialist,’ Yong told DailyMail.com. ‘He took off her onesie, looked at her chest and says, “She has Poland Syndrome.”’
Yong, who lives with her husband, her son Zach and Hailey in Nevada, was speaking as she and her daughter explored the Empire State Building – just hours before Hailey threw out the first pitch at Friday’s Mets game. While Hailey played tourist, she wasn’t wearing her robotic hand, excitedly hanging off the viewfinders and looking out over New York City; a spirited, highly adaptable child, she can accomplish mostly everything without mechanical aid.
‘She would have been [right-handed], because when she was a baby, she would always try with the right hand first and go, oh, okay, that doesn’t work – and then use her left hand,’ Yong said.
She has recently learned to tie her shoelaces, for example, though a few years later than the average child, who usually masters the skill around age five or six, Yong says.
Yong, left, contacted University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about possibly making a robotic hand for her daughter; Hailey is measured in this photo at the UNLV Science and Engineering Building in June 2014
Hailey’s mother says her daughter had righthand-leaning tendencies as a baby but adapted and starte ddoing more with her left hand, as well as figuring out how to use her underdeveloped limb
After taking measurements and creating molds, the UNLV team created a robotic hand for Hailey using a 3D printer
But Yong began looking into robotic hands five years ago after learning about two men behind the invention, one in South Africa and one in Washington State; she eventually decided trying to obtain one closer to home, contacting the engineering team at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
‘What worried me was, she couldn’t hold the handlebars,’ Yong said, pointing out an everyday issue that became apparent as Hailey got older without the aid of a prosthetic device or similar. ‘So I emailed UNLV, because I thought, who better than [university] kids, right? They’re totally going to relate to her and she’ll be able to talk to them. And they said yes.’
They created a plastic hand using a 3D printer after scanning her hand with lasers to get accurate measurements and making a mold of the prosthetic. Hailey’s wrist movements control the fingers, though the project has been a work in progress. They’re still trying to make the thumb movement and closure more realistic, and Yong meets with the team every few months to plan and make adjustments as Hailey grows.
‘When she started to wear this thing, it wasn’t about function; it became confidence,’ Yong said. And with that confidence came Hailey’s idea to begin throwing out first pitches.
‘We’re a huge baseball family,’ Yong told DailyMail.com. ‘My husband grew up playing baseball; my son has played baseball for nine years. He’s primarily a pitcher and first base player.’
Hailey goofs around at the top of the Empire State Building; she traveled to New York with her mother last week to throw out pitches at both a Yankees and Mets game
Hailey often doesn’t wear her robotic hand because she has managed to figure out how to do everything without it; her mother says the hand is more important for her ‘confidence’
Hailey poses with her father and brother, who have been supportive of her 30-stadium goal
Hailey has amassed a collection of memorabilia already from her visit to 20 ballparks, including autographs and the first-pitch baseballs from each team
The UNLV engineering team has been working to create specialized robotic hands for each team for Hailey; she is pictured here with her Mets-colored hand – and a Mets barrette
She began working to practice pitching with everyone from her dad and brother to college players and even Erick Fedde, a starting pitcher for the Nationals who lives in Vegas. Eventually Hailey worked out that it was easier to throw pitches underhand, which is what she’s been doing on national television as she makes her rounds of American stadiums.
The UNLV team has made her a special hand for each of the stadiums where she’s thrown out pitches; on the day she met with DailyMail.com, Hailey was sporting a blue and orange Mets hand. She also accruing quite a collection of paraphernalia, including autographs and signed baseballs from each of the major league stadiums.
And the family is making progress with their campaign to raise awareness, since so few people have any idea what Poland Syndrome is, Yong said.
‘Every single person I’ve spoken to doesn’t know what it is until we talk to them,’ Yong told DailyMail.com.
‘We’ve met two other Poland kids; one in Milwaukee, one in Texas,’ she added. ‘The one in Texas, he has a hand because his mom saw [Hailey’s] story, so she contacted me and asked what she should do – and I said, try the engineering department where you are … What we realized is that you just have to ask.’
Yong says: ‘Every time I get a chance, I talk about Poland Syndrome; every time I get a chance, I talk about that robotic hand.’
Hailey threw out the pitch at the Pittsburgh Pirates game on Monday, and next she and her mom are traveling next to Fenway Park in Boston for a Red Sox game. And she’d been a big hit when she ate lunch in New York before the Mets game at Foley’s – a sports memorabilia bar – where the owner has already pitched the idea of displaying some of her specialized robotic hands and commemorative baseballs.
But Hailey, for her part, is completely unfazed by the entire thing. Like any eight-year-old, she loves playing with her phone and hanging out with her friends, and – of course – baseball.
‘Whatever she wants to do, she does it on her own,’ her mother says proudly.
Hailey’s mother says Poland Syndrome has not held her back and: ‘Whatever she wants to do, she does it on her own’
Hailey poses with her robotic hand and the owner of Foley’s in New York City, a sports memorabilia-themed bar
Hailey gets her robotic hand signed in May, when she threw out the first pitch before the start of a game between the Colorado Rockies and the San Francisco Giants