Atlanta, GA,
09:30 AM

Mother Connects Milestones and Healing After Son's Diving Accident

Documenting and celebrating even the smallest victories can help patients and families heal.

By Kelly Sydnor
Mother of Former Shepherd Center Patient Cole Sydnor

Recently, my husband and I shamelessly clicked pictures and took videos of our 21-year-old son, Cole, as he drove his truck down our driveway and headed out to his first day as Sheltering Arms Foundation’s new intern. To most folks, this scene would seem routine -- sans the goofy parents documenting the event -- yet, for us, it felt miraculous!

You see, back during what I describe as our dark days, we never imagined a day like this would materialize. When Cole dove headfirst into the James River in Richmond, Va., in the summer of 2011 and struck his head on a submerged boulder, he was immediately paralyzed. All our lives were forever altered. Unable to move or breathe on his own, Cole’s life literally hung in the balance. Our hopes for a meaningful future seemed bleak. Cole initially desired to end it all – a very dark day, indeed. As parents, our job is to provide strong foundations and pathways to a bright future but, in my weakest moments, I allowed my hopes and dreams for Cole to remain dashed upon that damn rock. I was wounded, too.

Looking for an efficient way to disseminate up-to-date information on Cole’s condition, I began to write. I found it to be therapeutic and, as a bonus, a terrific method for documenting events, procedure dates and charting progress. As Cole’s full-time advocate and caregiver, I had no time to be a disorganized mess in addition to being an overwhelmed, emotional wreck. The journal entries were my safety net – my memory. Thus, I also began to take pictures and videos, and I began to share them. I documented every tiny sliver of progress. And, I began to heal.

Today, we take joy in celebrating all milestones, as part of our ongoing healing process. Fortunately, Cole is amenable to my constant picture taking. Even now, when he tires of the lens, he understands the value pictures add, the comfort they afford me and the discernible information they provide. Each baby step, especially in the beginning, was a gigantic leap of hope for us. Each tube removal another symbolic step toward additional independence. We were energized by each new gain, however slight, and bragged about them with our loving community like prized trophies. We ALL began to heal.

After nearly two years of updates, I cut back on the number of entries I published. I began to wonder if folks were tiring of hearing our story. Had Cole achieved any newsworthy milestones? Everything just felt kind of normal, even though it was still our new normal. Certainly nothing earth shattering was happening. Still, I continued to take pictures and videos and sprinkled in some Facebook posts. Well, looking back over the past several years, guess what?

My mind was blown! What seemed normal to us at the time was actually quite extraordinary.

Here is a comparison to what were huge milestones in the infancy of his injury to what he has been up to since:

First Year:

  1. Saw God’s light and learned his reasons for living
  2. Neck brace, PICC line, PEG tube, tracheostomy tube – all removed
  3. Sipped independently from a cup for the first time
  4. Discharged from hospital
  5. Graduated -- on time -- from high school


  1. First person with quadriplegia to walk in Indego® exoskeleton during pre-clinical trial at Shepherd Center
  2. Awarded a four-year Swim with Mike scholarship
  3. Given the Trauma Survivor Giving Back Award for his “No What UR Divin’ N2” campaign (now renamed The Cole Sydnor Trauma Survivor Giving Back Award)
  4. Founder/organizer of annual RollwithCole Sport-a-thon scholarship fundraiser since 2014)
  5. Drives his own modified truck
  6. Virginia Commonwealth University peer visitor volunteer – Trauma Survivor Network
  7. Sportable Spokes’ Coach of the Year 2015
  8. Coach of National Wheelchair Basketball Association NIT National Champions, Sportable Spokes 2016
  9. Completed junior year at University of Richmond, 4/26/2016
  10. 2016 Sheltering Arms Foundation Summer Intern 5/9/2016

Clearly, Cole has achieved an impressive list of milestones for which we are grateful. We appreciate everyone who acknowledges and cheers his progression. I believe it fuels Cole’s desire to succeed and encourages those who care for him daily. For those who care for others where recovery seems minimal or unchanged, keep in mind that growth, when viewed up close every day, can often go unnoticed and, worse, unrewarded.

Documentation helps progress speak for itself. When it comes to catastrophic injuries like spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury, not every positive change is measured in physical terms. It could be a slight deviation in attitude – a choice to be happy, to be loving, to seek ways to give back – no matter your limitations. In all ways, give your best, all the time. A list is really not necessary – just living a full life and recognizing, remembering, relishing and celebrating milestones, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is enough. I promise, you will begin to heal, too.

KELLY SYDNOR of Mechanicsville, Va.,is the mother of former Shepherd Center patient Cole Sydnor, who sustained a spinal cord injury when he was 16. Kelly and her husband Clement have two children, Cole and Quint. Prior to Cole’s injury, Kelly spent her career as an account executive with Clinique, Sanofi Beaute, and Brighton. She also volunteered in her community through church and her boys’ youth sports programs. Today, in addition to caring for Cole full-time, Kelly volunteers for the Trauma Survivors Network at VCU and supports organizations that provide opportunities for wheelchair athletes.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.