She had done everything the doctors suggested. Yoga. Specialized chiropractic exercises — three times a day — that were designed to slow the progression of the scoliosis she was diagnosed with at the age of 10.
And that darn brace. For 18 months, she wore it 23 hours a day. She didn’t sleep or eat well because it constricted her, and it was difficult to muster enough breath to play her oboe or the saxophone. She was uncomfortable all the time.
But Sydney Borchardt was willing to try anything to avoid spinal fusion surgery.
“I’m very Type A,” Sydney, who is now 16, said matter-of-factly, “So, I was just ready to do whatever I needed to do.”
Unfortunately, though, the curves in her spine continued to worsen, moving from 18 degrees at her initial diagnosis to 42 within two years. The doctors told Sydney and her family they needed to seriously consider fusion surgery to correct the deformity in her spine.
“I remember walking back into our little hospital room and I just broke down,” Sydney says. “I was like, I worked so hard these past few years to try to prevent it and nothing worked.
“So, it was pretty devastating and hard, especially as a 12-year-old and thinking about what spinal surgery would be like. And that’s when my mom and my dad started looking for other options.”
Sydney’s parents discovered a procedure called Vertebral Body Tethering, which uses a flexible cord and the body’s growth process to straighten out the spine, unlike the rods used in fusion surgery. But their insurance company deemed it experimental and wouldn’t pay for it.
So, Sydney’s mom, Melissa, found a Facebook group and posted about her situation. Almost immediately, she received a message from a man named Kyle who said to call him to talk about Shriners Children’s Hospitals. After Googling Kyle and his son, who also had scoliosis, she felt comfortable enough to make the call – and the conversation would change Sydney’s life.
Kyle told Melissa that he had taken his son to a Shriners Children’s Hospital. While he was unable to meet the strict FDA requirements for a clinical trial – and ended up having a procedure similar to VBT in a Boston hospital that cost $69,000 – he was struck by the Shriners’ mission.
“I’ll give you 69,000 reasons to call Shriners now,” Kyle told Melissa.
Shriners is a network of 22 non-profit hospitals across the country. Doctors at these facilities treat children with spinal cord issues like Sydney as well as orthopedic conditions, burns and cleft lips and palates — regardless of a family’s ability to pay. Proceeds of this week’s Shriners Children’s Open on the PGA TOUR help in that cause.
“They said, well, it doesn’t matter if your insurance pays or not,” Melissa says. “We’re going to do what’s best for Sydney. And then the relief of just worrying about whether you can afford to give her college or afford this specialty treatment, it just weighs on you as a parent.”
The Borchardts, who live in Oklahoma City, ended up taking Sydney to Shriners Children’s Philadelphia for the VBT surgery. Doctors deflated her lung and put a medical rope in her spine, connecting it to seven screws before inflating the lung again. Within two weeks, Sydney said she was “ready to go,” and four weeks later, she was back in school, swimming and playing the oboe.
And this week, Sydney is in Las Vegas, serving as one of four Patient Ambassadors for Shriners Children’s Hospital.
“Oh gosh, I can’t even really describe what it means,” she says. “I’m just so thankful for the opportunities that they’ve given me. Honestly, surgery was a big deal. … So being able to go to Shriners and just feel so secure in what they were doing and feel so loved, I know that helped my parents feel more confident in their decision and made me feel more confident.
“Now, being able to give back, I mean, I’ll never be able to repay what they did for me. So, this is just like a small thing of what I can do. Speaking on behalf of them and representing them feels like the only way I can ever kind of give back. And so, I enjoy talking about how amazing they are and the amazing care that they have given kids through all these years.”
But there is more to the story. Sydney’s great-grandfather, the late Omer Jordan, was a Shriner and both her great-grandmother and grandmother, who also had scoliosis and underwent fusion surgery at the age of 38, were involved with the Daughters of the Nile. (The women’s organization itself has raised more than $45 million for Shriners Children’s Hospitals.)
Jordan died before Sydney was born and she barely knew her great-grandmother. Melissa remembers them, though, and seeing pictures in their home of her wearing the crown and him wearing the red conical Fez that is symbolic of Shriners membership.
“When they both passed away, they asked for donations for Shriners,” Melissa recalls. “So, we really didn’t think about it too much, but we saw the pictures and stuff, and then as Sydney got involved in Shriners, we were just kind of like, wow, you know, these guys, they do it selflessly.”
Not surprisingly, Sydney’s journey over the last six years has brought her closer to her relatives. And in way things have come full circle, with her great-grandparents’ legacy helping her.
“That’s exactly what me and Mom had been thinking is just, he doesn’t even know that he would eventually be helping his great granddaughter after all those years of raising money,” Sydney says. “And you know, we don’t have a lot of spare time in life. Life is crazy and busy, but he spent that time helping kids and it’s just so selfless of him.
“And so, I really desire to be like my great grandfather and grandmother.”
On Tuesday, Sydney was at TPC Summerlin where a host of PGA TOUR pros were preparing for the Shriners Children’s Open. Among the pros she met was four-time champion Ryan Palmer, whose late father was a proud Shriner.
There was an instant connection as they talked about Sydney’s great-grandfather and Butch Palmer.
“Just the fact of what they like, what they love doing most is helping these young kids, you know, these hospitals and taking care of these patients who can’t afford to get the care they need,” Palmer recalls. “And it just says what kind of people they were — her grandfather, my dad, Butch Palmer.
“I mean, I got everything, you know, the things I love doing, helping with charities and my foundation, I’ve got it from him — just his love for helping kids and helping others. And what a great organization Shriners are and what they do for kids.”
Butch Palmer was active in the Khiva Shrine of Amarillo (Texas) from 1985 until his death in 2015. He was the potentate in 2001 and Ryan remembers going to the temple as a youngster and listening to the Oriental band – where his dad played horn — practice.
“Just the people I met along the way that are still close up dear to my heart,” says Palmer, who adds that it’s not a surprise to see some of them volunteering this week. “They’re close friends of mine that were friends of his. And so, a lot of good memories during those times, for sure.”
As he got older, Palmer says he began to realize what being a Shriner and helping the kids really meant. And he knew how much his dad loved the Shriners Children’s Open, which his son first played in 2004. One year, the two even met some Player Ambassadors like Sydney.
“He loved being a part of it walking around with his Fez and knowing that he was here with the Shriners, but also his son was playing in the tournament,” Ryan says. “So, each and every year I come here just seems like it’s getting bigger and better, and it means that much more to me to be here.
“And it would speak volumes, I mean, no telling what it would be like to come out and possibly win this tournament one day and knowing what he stood for and what he did and how much the Shriners meant to him.”