With two Wilmington University diplomas under her belt and a new law degree from Widener University of School of Law, Caren Sydnor has much to celebrate.
The future seems wide open for the Delaware native. But that wasn’t always the case. After the birth of her first son in August 2004, she developed an abscess at the epidural site that compressed her spine, leaving her paralyzed below the T8 vertebra, located around the middle of the back.
Her determination to overcome her disability — she can now walk with canes — was later followed by the commitment to pursue and secure undergraduate and advanced degrees in areas that have become her passion.
Life Changes In An Instant
Sydnor didn’t have the law in her sights while growing up in the Bear area of New Castle County, Delaware. The oldest of three girls — her father works for a Delaware City refinery and her mother works for Amazon — Sydnor initially wanted be a pastry chef. “I’ve always loved to cook,” she says.
After graduating in 1999 from William Penn High School in New Castle, she enrolled in a culinary school in Pittsburgh. But an old back injury, caused by a car accident when she was 16, immediately flared up. “It was so difficult to lift heavy dough and carry trays over my head,” she says. She withdrew after a few months.
Back home, she was hired at a boat dealership, where she worked until she married in 2001 and moved briefly to North Carolina. Upon returning to Delaware, she resumed working at the dealership, where she assisted the shop’s owner. She and her husband welcomed a son, Wesley, in August 2004. The joy would soon turn to agony.
Developing a complication from the epidural anesthetic never entered her mind, and at first, everything was fine. She even took a stroll around the neighborhood the day she brought the baby home. That night, she noticed some discomfort in her back. “The following day I couldn’t sit or stand,” she says.
Her doctor, who reminded her that she’d recently endured 16 hours of labor, prescribed muscle relaxers and pain medication. They couldn’t touch the pain. “It was so severe, it was overcoming anything I took,” she says. “I ended up with a fever of 104.5.”
She returned to the hospital, where the pain faded to numbness in her back and a pins-and-needles sensation in her legs. She woke up in the hospital one morning unable to feel anything below the waist.
Denial quickly set in. She couldn’t believe she would never walk again, even when she was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. But it was there, surrounded by other patients with similar injuries, that she faced reality. She also developed determination.
The Will to Succeed
One day Sydnor was a new mother holding her baby. Within weeks she was marking her 23rd birthday in a rehabilitation facility. Her aunt, hoping to cheer her up, put her hand on her leg and said, “You’ll be fine.” Sydnor got excited and exclaimed, “I can feel that!” The communication between her brain and her legs wasn’t severed, but it was interrupted.
Sydnor wanted to take her first steps before Wesley did — she wanted him to watch her walk. Committed to that goal, she underwent physical therapy twice a day and did exercises back in her hospital room. “I moved as much as I possibly could,” she says.
Part of her therapy involved activity-based locomotor training. The patient is suspended over a treadmill in a harness-like support while therapists position and maneuver the legs and body to simulate walking. Once she was released, Sydnor returned to Magee for more locomore training up to five times a week for months.
Today, Sydnor walks with canes or uses a wheelchair, although she prefers to stand on her two feet, she says. In appreciation for the therapy’s results, she established the Caren Sydnor Locomotor Training Fund at Magee to provide locomotor training to other spinal cord injury patients if insurance runs out. The fund also offers equipment to optimize therapy time and help patients walk. In 2009, Magee honored Sydnor with the Tuttleman Award for Excellence in Healthcare.
A few years after her injury, Sydnor realized she wouldn’t return to her old job at the dealership. She wanted a career that she’d love, and she knew she needed a college education to pursue it. With a 2-year-old at home, however, she also needed a flexible program. She chose Wilmington University. “I decided to go back full time, and the biggest draw was that I could take classes at night,” says Sydnor, whose relatives could care for the baby in the evening.
One Interest Leads to Another
In high school, Sydnor had participated in a mock trial and her pleasure in the exercise stayed with her over the years, prompting her to consider a career in the legal field.
In January 2007, she entered the legal studies program at Wilmington University, where she also minored in both political science and finance. Because of the many classes offered at the different campuses, Sydnor realized she could expedite her degree. She increased her course load, moving between WilmU’s New Castle and Dover locations as needed. “I liked getting to know different students and different professors at each campus,” she says. “I found that rewarding.”
Sydnor mostly walked from the parking lots to her classes, and when parking for disabled guests and students was filled, the university staff marked a spot with a cone so she didn’t have to walk too far. “I had no issues with getting around the campuses with my wheelchair or two canes,” she says.
She appreciates the one-on-one attention of the faculty as well as the staff. “They really care about their students,” she says. “They’re very understanding, and they work with you if you have an issue.” She particularly enjoyed her legal research class, which in many respects paved the way for the next stage of her academic career.
Sydnor was fascinated by electronic discovery, also known as e-discovery. Using digital forensic procedures, researchers pour through electronically stored information to find evidence to use on a case. Unlike paper documents, electronic information also includes “metadata,” such as the date and time a document was created and/or changed.
Sydnor — who received WilmU’s Trustees’ Award for Service for an undergraduate and the College of Arts & Sciences’ academic award — was so enthusiastic about the law that she considered law school after earning her degree at Wilmington University. But with a new baby at home in August 2009, she opted to pursue a master’s degree in information systems technology, an interest sparked by the legal research class. “I wanted to get a leg up,” she says, “and learn more about electronic discovery and how that comes into play with the law.”
While studying for her master’s, she worked at an electronic medical records company. “I became interested in e-records and how to secure them during the discovery process,” she says. “I learned about the systems that make them accessible, all of which interested me.”
After Sydnor graduated from WilmU in 2011, she entered Widener University School of Law’s summer trial admission program. During the course of the summer, some students decide the law is not for them. Sydnor wasn’t one of them. She enrolled in fall 2011, and her interest in e-records led to a focus on health care law.
While at Widener, she became involved in the Wills for Heroes program, which offers free basic wills, durable powers of attorney and advanced health care directives for first responders. Dubbed the “the program’s most enthusiastic student cheerleader” in a law school student profile, she volunteered to work at the Nov. 17, 2012 — just three weeks after giving birth to her third child.
While carrying a full course load at Widener and caring for her three active sons, Sydnor also was an intern in the Veterans Law Clinic and Civil Law Clinic, where she helped victims of domestic abuse secure retraining orders. And she volunteers to conduct polling place assessments to make sure they’re complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Facing the Future
Sydnor didn’t realize it when she was in Wilmington University’s legal studies program, but the fact that it’s approved by the American Bar Association makes a difference to employers, which is a plus for Sydnor, who graduated in May 2014 from law school.
As of late 2014, she was an intern with the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the Delaware Department of Justice. “I would like to stay in healthcare,” she says. “I really enjoy the work I do concerning Medicaid fraud.”
But while at Wilmington University, she also developed an interest in bankruptcy law and estate planning, an area that she’s explored further through her work with Wills for Heroes, which she wants to continue.
In a home outfitted to accommodate her disability — there’s an elevator and waist-high kitchen island, for instance — her children, ages 10, 5 and 2, have grown up around wheelchairs and canes. Sydnor, whose story has appeared in USA Today, is one of the “Voices of Spinal Cord Injury,” available on the New York Times website, and she’s the face of the TheraStride System, a locomotor training device. Yet the children have also grown up around textbooks, term papers and volunteer work. She hopes it all serves as examples of what you can do when you set your mind on it.
One has the sense that Sydnor has no shortage of goals still on the list. And based on recent history, she’ll no doubt achieve them.
Her choice to attend Wilmington University, she says, was the right one. “I went to Wilmington University primarily for the flexibility it offered and I got an excellent education.”
Written by Pam George | Photos by Michael Sahadi