Victoria Arlen was one of those kids who never got sick. She was active, an athlete, and loved to dance and swim. But that all changed when she turned 11-years-old. Things went seriously downhill from there.
Arlen ended up in what doctors thought was a paralyzed vegetative state for four years.
However, Arlen says she was conscious during some of that time and could hear everything going on around her. She just couldn’t respond leaving her trapped in her own body for four years, two of which she remembers.ADVERTISEMENT
“I was 11 when I started getting sick. I was just confused,” she told TODAY. “I was just asking why I can’t get out of bed. Why aren’t my legs moving.”
She began feeling numbness in her feet. Two weeks later she was in the hospital for loss of mobility and cognitive function.
“My nerves were dying,” she told PEOPLE. “I literally watched as my body shut down.”
At the time, doctors had no diagnosis for the child and advised her parents to take her home. The family moved a hospital bed to the ground floor of their two-story home.
This is where Arlen would stay and live out her new life.
Later on, she would be diagnosed with transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, rare autoimmune diseases that caused inflammation of the brain and spine.
“I never gave up hope that she would fully recover,” Arlen’s mother Jacquelyn told PEOPLE.
Arlen says the next two years are blurred out of her memory.
But in 2008 she started to regain cognitive function, however, there were long bouts when she would remain completely paralyzed and would have frequent seizures. Sometimes every few minutes. She could hear doctors and her family but couldn’t let them know that she was aware of this.
“I was really scared. I knew if I just stopped fighting, I wouldn’t be in pain or suffering anymore — but dying was the easy way out,” she said.
So Arlen decided she would spend this time strengthening her mind.
She would write screenplays in her head, pray, and visualize the life she would lead when she was healthy again. And eventually, she grew stronger. She says positive thinking helped her to persevere.
“I kept reminding myself of what was good — and that I was still there,” she says.
In 2009, three months after she turned 15, she woke up to realize that she had control of her eyes.
“From there it was miracle after miracle,” she recalls.
She began to get feeling back in the upper part of her body. Her doctor, Dr. Michael Levy, says that only one-third of patients recover from transverse myelitis.
He says her age and good health prior to her illness was a big factor in her being able to recover.
From then on she had to get around in a wheelchair. But eventually, her brothers put a life vest on her and let her swim in the pool.
“It was freedom for me,” she says. “The pool became my escape.”
Arlen when on to train for a gold medal in the 2012 Paralympic games in London. She was bullied in high school for using a wheelchair which helped her to gain a determination to walk again.
And she did. She also went on to become an anchor for ESPN and competed on Dancing With The Stars.
““I want the other Victorias out there, the people that are suffering or going through something, to keep fighting. I’d never choose what happened to me, but I would never change it. It’s my tragic, beautiful journey,” Arlen says.
Learn more about her incredible journey in the video below.
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