Young athlete works to come back from paralyzing infection

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In the warm water of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite's new aquatic therapy pool, Sydney Fowler is in her element. Raised on the South Carolina coast, she's a beach kid, 300 miles from home, working to get back on her feet.

"It's just kind of relaxing, and it's just really fun," Fowler smiles.

And watching the 14-year old work with Children's physical therapist Heather Petersen, the two of them make their therapy session look almost easy. 

Petersen says it is not.

The new pool has an adjustable-depth floor that can be turned into an underwater treadmill.  Cameras mounted all around them allow the staff to monitor Fowler's movements.

"We're going to work on a little bit of strengthening, her arms, her core," Petersen says.

Fowler arrived at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta in January, ready to get down to business.

"She just worked so hard from the get-go," Petersen says. "Sometimes, we have to tell her when to take breaks, because she wants to just keep going."

The Charleston 9th grader has an athlete's focus -- she's trained in volleyball, karate, and CrossFit.

"She's pretty fearless, actually," says Jeremy Fowler, Sydney's father.

Six months ago, Sydney was playing on one of the top competitive girls' volleyball teams in the country.

"Yeah, we're pretty good," she says.  "We're 9th in the nation."

Then, overnight, everything unraveled.

"One day we were playing volleyball," Fowler explains.  "And, the next day, I couldn't feel my legs."

It was December 18, 2018. Her heart was hurting, and she had a terrible backache. The ER doctor sent them home with ibuprofen, thinking it was a sprain. When that didn't help, they drove to the pediatrician. That is when it happened,

"I started to not feel my legs, and they were kicking up, but I wasn't doing it," Sydney Fowler says.  "So, I got out of the car and I just kind of fell."

Rushed to the hospital, doctors found a major staph infection, up and down the middle of her spine.

 "In the course of a few hours she went from fuzzy legs to stumbling, to one leg not working to the other leg not working, to being paralyzed, all the way up to her sternum," Jeremy Fowler says.

Two spinal surgeries and powerful antibiotics stopped the infection. But the inflammation compressed Sydney's spinal cord. When she arrived at Children's Healthcare in January, she had no feeling or movement from the waist down.

"A lot of people would just give up in her situation because they can't control what happened to them, just like she can't," Heather Petersen says. "But she's not one to do that.  She's not going to keep up, she's going to keep pushing."

Sydney Fowler's father says she's always been an athlete, who trained hard in every sport she played.

"This is kind of the new thing," Fowler says.  "We're attacking this like any other sport we've ever done."

The intense rehabilitation work seems to be paying off. Recently, while her volleyball team was visiting, Sydney Fowler discovered she could wiggle her toes.

"She pulled her shoe off, and they were like, 'What are you doing, Sydney,'" her day says.  "And, she said, 'Watch!'  And, she started wiggling her toes.  Everybody started bawling on her team."

"They said that was really encouraging, given that it's only been 5 months," Sydney Fowler says.

The Fowlers are staying at the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House, alternating each day between Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and Shepherd Center in Buckhead.

"I've kind of had a peace about that the whole time," her father says. "I feel like she's just going to keep improving."

Sydney Fowler dreams of walking again, one day. Watching her, you get the feeling, she will get there.

"[I'm] Pretty determined," she smiles.