From left: 9-year-old Wesley helps clean up ingredients while his brothers, 4-year-old Preston and 18-month-old Justin, stir brown mix together while baking with their mother, Caren Sydnor, Wednesday. / Jennifer Corbett, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal
BEAR, Del. -- Caren Sydnor's three boys swirl around her in the kitchen as they make brownies after school.
Wesley, 9, carefully measures out the right amounts of oil and water and puts containers back in the pantry without having to be asked.
Preston, 4, grudgingly shares stirring duties with his younger brother, 18-month-old Justin, who needs to be coaxed into licking a chocolatey spatula.
Sydnor, 32, manages the busy scene from a power wheelchair. The kitchen island in her home is waist-high so she can reach it.
Nearly 10 years ago, a spinal cord abscess produced by painkillers used during Wesley's birth paralyzed Sydnor from the waist down.
The injury completely upended Sydnor's life, she said. Only days after becoming a mother, she was re-hospitalized with excruciating back pain.
During Wesley's first months of life, she underwent exhausting rehabilitation in Philadelphia. She came home on Thanksgiving Day 2004 facing a different future than she anticipated before giving birth.
Her ability to walk at all require canes and continuous physical therapy.
"This is as good as it gets," Sydnor said of her limited mobility. "My brain can communicate with my legs, but I don't have the fine motor function. It's just miscommunication."
The injury could have sunk Sydnor into depression, funneling her toward a closed-off life.
Instead, she has drastically changed direction.
After she graduated from high school, she took an administrative job with few thoughts of attending college.
But after her injury, she went back to school and earned her bachelor's degree, and then a master's in information systems technology, then she enrolled in law school.
In the meantime she gave birth to two more children with her then-husband, a Delaware state trooper.
"I'm showing my kids that nothing can really stop you if you put your mind to it," Sydnor said this week as she prepared to work on a final paper at Widener's Wilmington campus. "I don't let it bring me down. I won't say I don't have moments, we all do, but for the most part, I'm well on my way."
When Widener Law students graduate Saturday, Sydnor will be in their ranks, ready to start an internship in the Delaware Department of Justice's Medicaid fraud office and looking ahead to the Delaware and New Jersey bar exams.
"She's like one of those big 6-foot-10, 400-pound guys who just tackle people. That's her spirit," said Damiano Presley Del Pino, a 2011 Widener Law grad. "A lot of people thought, why bother? A lot of students said that â?? 'She doesn't need this.' She's very good at knowing what she's capable of and what she isn't."
'I couldn't stand, walk, sit'
When Wesley was born in August 2004, Sydnor's 16 hours of labor was on the long side, but she walked out of the hospital with her baby like every other mother does. She and her husband, Jason Sydnor, went back home to her parents' house with their son. But within days, Sydnor was suffering from back pain and a fever that spiked to 104 degrees.
She returned to Christiana Hospital where she'd given birth.
"I couldn't stand, walk, sit. I started developing numbness in my back, pins and needles in my legs. Unfortunately, no one was really listening," Sydnor said. "I woke up Saturday morning paralyzed from the waist down from a spinal abscess."
Sydnor had had an epidural during Wesley's birth, a fairly common pain-management procedure during labor that can lead, in rare cases, to spinal injury. In 2006, the Sydnors sued Christiana Care Health Services, Maternity Associates and two doctors for medical malpractice. The suit was settled out-of-court in May 2008.
A payment from the defendants that was part of the settlement, Sydnor said, made it possible for them to buy a house constructed with her disability in mind and help her pay for her education.
And in 2008, they gave a $100,000 contribution to Magee Rehabilitation for a fund that helps patients get the kind of physical rehabilitation that helped Sydnor.
"It didn't really sink in until I got to the rehab hospital and was surrounded by people in wheelchairs," Sydnor said. "I kept saying, take me home, take me home, this isn't real. But I made a goal: I said, I'm going to walk before my son does."
That she did. As Sydnor remembers it, she walked the halls of Magee with supportive canes as her young son, learning to walk just like his mother, trailed behind her. She says her parents, her extended family and her in-laws and numerous friends, supported her during her rehabilitation.
These days, all three of her sons easily outpace her. Even Justin, not yet 2, can scamper around their Bear home at a faster clip than Sydnor. Caren and Jason Sydnor separated last fall, Sydnor said, and she expects their divorce to be final later this year. An au pair now helps her manage the three boys at home, where she mostly uses the wheelchair to move around, and an elevator goes between its three floors.
Out of the house, Sydnor says, she prefers to walk with two canes when she can manage it.
Determined to earn degrees
The job Sydnor had before her injury involved assisting the owner of a marine dealership. It carried a lot of responsibility and paid well, she said, but it had never been her goal.
In the aftermath of her paralysis, she decided to return to school in earnest. Remembering a fondness for a mock-trial competition in high school, Sydnor trained her sights on the law.
She earned a bachelor's degree from Wilmington University, thinking she might become a paralegal. But a class on e-discovery, the skill of decoding what useful data might be contained in digital files acquired through litigation, spurred her toward a full law degree.
After earning her master's degree, she paused her education to have Preston, her second son, in August 2009, almost exactly five years after her first.
The spinal cord injury added complexity to her later pregnancies.
"We didn't know how my body was going to react," Sydnor said. "It was definitely nerve-wracking going through it."
She completely ruled out epidurals during labor. She consulted with her therapists and several ob-gyns, including one who specialized in expectant mothers with spina bifida.
Sydnor started at Widener in 2011 and just took her last final exams.
She volunteers to check polling places for compatibility with the Americans with Disabilities Act and helped veterans create wills at the school's Wills for Heroes events. She also interned at the school's Veterans Law Clinic and its Civil Law Clinic, helping victims of domestic abuse secure restraining orders.
Del Pino, who founded the Delaware chapter of Wills for Heroes, said Sydnor devoted herself to the program, which helps servicemembers and veterans with legal documents.
"Because of how long she's been in the program and how much she's taken it upon herself to learn Delaware trust and estate law, I've even heard lawyers ask her questions," Del Pino said. "If she wanted to go into litigation or trial work, there's nothing she couldn't go into."
Sydnor intends to practice law related to health care, although she says she'll likely avoid malpractice law, since it hits too close to home.
In the middle of her legal education, she had Justin. Her life is certainly hectic, juggling a mother's responsibilities with a law student's workload. Her home office looks like a tornado of paper. Her cap and gown is stored in the elevator. Preston's cap for his preschool graduation ceremony rests on the dining room table.
On Mother's Day, she said, her family usually orchestrates something thoughtful: a handmade gift, a dinner out. Wesley, she says, is old enough to sometimes plot his own surprises for her.
The boys, she says, have "embraced" her disability, even as they understand it means her life isn't exactly like their friends' mothers.
"Wesley has told my sister, like, 'I wish my mommy could run with me,'" she said, tearing up. "I'm sorry. I still get teary-eyed when I think about it. But they understand. And I think the benefit is, when they see somebody in a wheelchair, they're not like the other kids. They go and say, can I hold the door open for you? And they don't do it in a condescending way. And people love that."
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