MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCBD) – A spinal staph infection left one Lowcountry 14-year-old paralyzed 11 months ago, but she’s fighting to reach her goal of learning how to walk again.
Part 1: The Road to Recovery
She was an athlete, a competitor, and in a matter of hours, Sydney Fowler’s life changed.
“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t lay down, I couldn’t sit. Whatever I did the pain couldn’t go away,” she explained.
Just after Thanksgiving last year, heart pain and body aches set it. Initially, doctors suspected a treatable lung disease or heart infection.
“Like most of us, we don’t worry – we say okay, you just go home and rest,” said Jeremy Fowler, Sydney’s father.
The pain got worse, so Sydney’s parents took her to the Medical University of South Carolina.
As she got out of the car… “my legs just buckled,” she recalled.
Hours later, “two hours later, my mom was like okay sweetie, show them how you can walk and I was like mom, I can’t even move my legs.”
MUSC neurosurgeon Dr. Ramin Eskandari took the case on.
“She, unfortunately, was losing movement quite rapidly,” said Dr. Eskandari.
He ordered an MRI that revealed an extremely rare staph infection causing her spinal cord to compress.
“To have a super healthy CrossFit girl get a staph infection was a really tough pill to swallow,” he said.
Doctors say they will never know how she got it. Regardless, they went in for surgery.
“We knew that there was a potential she wouldn’t get function back again, but we always give kids the benefit of the doubt,” said Dr. Eskandari.
Surgery didn’t work.
“That next morning, when there wasn’t an immediate improvement, we got another MRI and it showed the infection was very much bigger.”
So, Sydney had to undergo another surgery.
Afterward, Sydney was numb from her chest down.
“For a long time I felt like, we caught it, we got it, they stitched her up, we should be up and running again. When is she going to start walking again,” said Jeremy.
“I thought it was a fluke thing,” recalled Sydney.
After talking with doctors, the reality set in.
“The hardest point from my standpoint was conveying a sense of hope and an ability to do things in the future without giving them unrealistic expectations,” said Dr. Eskandari.
A journey was ahead but the Fowlers’ were ready for the challenge.
“There is no, like, never,” said Sydney.
She began her therapy journey 300 miles away in Atlanta at the closest pediatric inpatient rehab center. Dr. Eskandari says MUSC doesn’t have one.
“This has been a topic we have discussed at the highest level at MUSC and we are doing our best to find ways to recruit who we need to be able to make that happen in the future,” he said.
Sydney did not let that get in the way of her goal. Staying focused, pushing herself for eight months in Atlanta, 10 hours a day.
“I have a goal to work towards, so staying positive helps me work towards that goal and get better,” she said.
That hard work is slowly paying off.
Then, a glimmer of hope as she began slightly wiggling her toes.
After all, she’s been through, this exact moment was the first time she cried.
In part two of our Still Sydney series, we’ll show you just how far Sydney has come and how she’s focusing on giving back and changing the lives of others.
Part 2: Giving back and changing the lives of others
The 14-year-old is turning her paralysis into positive change and inspiring many.
“I don’t want to live sadly,” she said. “I just feel like that’s not living at all. Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m not normal.”
Pushing herself beyond her limits, Sydney is on a mission.
“I have a goal to work towards, so stayin’ positive helps me work towards that goal to get better,” she said.
That goal — walk again and play the game she loves, volleyball.
“She is throwing everything she’s got at it,” said Christi Fowler.
Now at 14, Sydney is a fearless Wando High School student. Every day after school she’s in therapy at Roper Saint Francis hospital.
“She challenges me to challenge her.”
Kyle Cooper works closely with Sydney
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in her posture and her core. She seems to have a great resiliency for no matter what we throw at her,” said Cooper.
After therapy, Sydney and her dad Jeremy Fowler hit CrossFit Wando gym.
“We mix sports and therapy every day we can,” he said. “We’re 11 months in and she’s got feeling in both legs and she can bend over now, and she can use a lot of her body parts.”
The wheelchair hasn’t stopped Sydney yet.
After her injury, Sydney competes in triathlons, water skis and goes rock climbing.
“I still am Sydney; I might not be able to do some stuff, but I can do a lot more than people think.”
“I don’t know if I met anybody else who has just pulled out the stops like her.”
“All I knew was this girl in a wheelchair with a smile that can light up the room”
After meeting Sydney, Shep Rose helped fundraise for an in-home elevator. With donations coming in Sydney turned her focus to helping others.
“Right now, in Charleston, if you have a stroke and you can’t walk, you’d have to move to Atlanta to get a very advanced tool to get better.”
The tool is an exoskeleton. Sydney is now buying one for Roper Saint Francis to help others with spinal cord injuries
“We could have gotten it just for our house, but I mean what is it going to do? Just sit in my house and not be used? That’s unfair there are people who need that.”
“We feel like we’re put in this circumstance for a reason, so she’s already giving back.”
A selfless, fearless and positive teen regardless of what comes her way. With a support system like no other.
“I don’t know what I would do without the support system I have,” said Sydney.
“One day I think she will be stronger than when she got into this circumstance in the first place,” said dad, Jeremy.
“When you’re watching it happen it is just so triumphant,” said Christi.
“If it is at all possible, Sydney will do it,” said Dr. Eskandari.
“Everyone goes through challenges; I think it’s really important to stay positive and push through them.”
Pushing through every obstacle because she’s Still Sydney.
The Fowler family hopes to donate the exoskeleton to Roper within the next few months. To donate to Sydney’s cause, please click here.