“The moment when you feel like giving up is right before your breakthrough,” Victoria Arlen told Fox News when recalling the years she spent living in a vegetative state at age 11.
Arlen, 23, is often recognized as one of ESPN’s reporters, or from her days as a participant on Dancing with the Stars, but what many people may not know is that she was “locked” in her own body for four years.
In 2006, Arlen developed Transverse Myelitis and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis. Two very rare inflammatory diseases that can lead to neurological complications, like muscle weakness, motor dysfunction, seizures and paralysis.
Transverse Myelitis (TM), caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, damages the protective layer that covers nerve fibers, cutting off communication between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM) is an inflammation in the brain and the spinal cord that also damages the protective covering of nerve fibers that transmit information.
“It’s really rare to get both of them and they still don’t know what caused it,” Arlen said. “I’m kind of an anomaly.”
Arlen was a typical healthy child growing up, until she started getting sick with the flu and pneumonia. At first her doctors thought it was her appendix, so they removed it, but within two weeks her foot started to drag and she eventually became paralyzed from the waist down and lost her ability to speak shortly after.
“What felt like a fast progression, was kind of a three-month decline,” Arlen explained.
Arlen’s doctors were not optimistic about her future, but that didn’t discourage her family.
“They told my parents I would not be a functioning member of society, [that] I would never talk, walk [and] they should put me away in a home and kind of move on with their lives,” Arlen recalled. “But they were like, as soon as she’s stable, we’re going to bring our child home.”
Arlen’s family turned their living room into a hospital room and never gave up hope. Four years later, Arlen got control of her eyes and was able to blink to communicate. In a six-month process, Arlen slowly began to regain mobility and relearned things like wiggling her fingers and lifting her arms. Even though she was making great progress, doctors told her the damage done to her spinal cord was irreversible and she would never be able to walk again.
Arlen and her family refused to believe she’d be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Her brothers encouraged her to get in the water and after some training she became a Paralympian swimmer at age 17.
“It was the two hours a day I could get out of my wheelchair, which was so therapeutic for me,” Arlen said. “And then I kind of learned that I was kind of good and that I could get better.”
Arlen became more than better, actually. She went on to win one gold and three silver medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
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Arlen credits her curiosity for the world with giving her the strength to live her life to the fullest despite her condition. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to sit back and let life kind of pass me by. I’m going to go out and live every moment,’” she said.
The climb might be tough and challenging but the view is worth it.
Even though she had conquered so much already, she never stopped believing that she would one day walk again. She began activity-based therapy at a paralysis recovery center called Project Walk in San Diego and after nearly a decade in a wheelchair, was able to learn how to walk again.
For those who face adversity, just keep going, Arlen said. “The climb might be tough and challenging but the view is worth it. There is a purpose for that pain, you just can’t always see it right away.”
Arlen details her empowering journey in a new memoir, “Locked In: The Will to Survive and the Resolve to Live,” which hits bookstands in August 2018.