As a young girl, Victoria Arlen loved to dance and show off her athletic abilities.
But at the tender age of 11, Victoria showed troubling flu-like symptoms. She had multiple fainting spells and ended up with pneumonia.
She was paralyzed from the waist down just two weeks later. Her body began to shut down gradually. Her entire existence was wiped out because of a serious infection of her brain and spinal cord.
Victoria’s family watched in despair as she gradually lost the capacity to communicate, eat, and move around.
Her amazing tale, however, had only begun. Both her loved ones and her doctors were taken aback by what transpired four years later.
Victoria was essentially ‘stuck’ inside her own body for close to four years.
Her family was told by doctors that she was in a persistent vegetative state. She would have starved to death if not for the tube feeding that kept her alive.
Her parents were informed early on that a full recovery was quite unlikely.
“We lost her,” her mother, Jacqueline said.
Victoria could hear her family and friends from her hospital bed, but no one knew it.
She ‘came up’ from the coma two years later, but she still couldn’t move her body. She wanted to respond to the voices around her, but her body would not cooperate.
Victoria found herself in a nightmare-like condition where she was unable to communicate with anyone.
The rare condition that caused Victoria’s spinal cord and brain inflammation was eventually identified by specialists.
Medical professionals had reportedly informed her family that she was clinically brain dead. She would spend the remainder of her life in a vegetative condition.
“But my parents believed in me. They set up a hospital room in our house in New Hampshire, and took care of me. My three brothers — I’m a triplet and we have an older brother — talked to me and kept me in the know about what was going on outside of my room. They empowered me to fight and get stronger. They didn’t know I could hear them, but I could,” Victoria says, as per ESPN.
By 2010 Victoria had overcome her condition and emerged from a coma.
The first time she looked at her mom in the eye was in December of 2009. From that point on, she slowly started to come back to life. At first, she could just move her finger, but eventually, she was able to wave her entire hand. She developed the ability to form words and sentences over time.
First it was pudding, and then she graduated to real food. Then she got the hang of holding her cell phone and discovered the meaning of the Facebook ‘poke’ button.
There was still one thing she couldn’t do, despite the remarkable progress: move her legs.
Permanent damage to Victoria’s brain and spinal cord was predicted after the bulge was discovered. From the waist down, she would be paralyzed permanently.
A common refrain from the doctors was, “You have to get used to sitting in a wheelchair.”
Bullied for her wheelchair
Victoria, though, has a willpower that few people possess. Despite the overwhelming odds, she persisted in her fight.
She refused to believe the doctors when they said she would never walk again. She wasn’t destined to be a chair potato her whole life.
However, several of her classmates picked on her because she returned to high school using a wheelchair.
She had been looking forward to starting the new school year, but after the first day she vowed never to go back.
Victoria returned home feeling utterly defeated and on the verge of tears. Her parents made a vow to do whatever it took to help her regain her courage that day.
They were true to their word and never gave up hope.
Victoria could only cling to hope; logic told her she would never walk again.
One particular quote characterized her struggle through this time: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
At some point, Victoria’s life reached a defining moment.
Victoria was comfortable in the water because she grew up near a lake and learnt to swim at a young age. At the young age of 10, she had already joined a swim team and begun competing.
Victoria was convinced she would never be able to swim again while she was healing from her illness. Without the use of her legs, she believed it was impossible.
However, her sibling argued otherwise. In 2010, they abandoned her in the home swimming pool. Despite her initial apprehension, this proved to be just the motivation she required.
She claims that she regained her “jump” in life. Victoria was able to break free from the chair and continue being a competent swimmer even as she was swimming.
The water granted not only independence but also self-assurance.
Victoria, at 17 years old, was a member of the United States team in the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games. In the 100-meter freestyle, she won a gold medal and three silvers. In the later competition, she also established a new record.
After her time in London, she found that much of the globe had heard of her. Victoria’s reputation grew to the point where she was asked to give lectures.
When she started talking about her life to TV reporters and periodicals, she became an inspiration to people all over the world.
However, she still had one nagging concern: that wheelchair.
Victoria relocated to San Diego in 2013 to take part in the Project Walk program, which assists paralyzed individuals in learning to walk again.
“My mother and I temporarily relocated to San Diego and lived with family so I could train every day. We realized this was the place that could help me, but we didn’t want to live hundreds of miles away from my brothers and dad. So, keeping their promise, my family decided to open the first Project Walk franchise on the East Coast. This way, I could train every day and achieve my goal, while others in my hometown could regain the hope they needed,” Victoria says.
However, doctors at the hospital were doubtful about Victoria’s mobility.
The doctor wouldn’t “mortgage his house on it,” as he put it to her parents. In response, they actually did that to generate enough capital to launch Project Walk in Boston.
Victoria took her first steps on November 11, 2015.
Two trainers helped her move her legs while she was restrained in a harness above a treadmill.
It had been six years since her ‘awakening’ at that point. Multiple doctors had repeatedly pronounced his legs clinically dead.
Even yet, Victoria got up every morning and put in six hours of training in order to accomplish her objective.
She was slowly regaining her mobility. She got around with the aid of crutches rather quickly.
After using crutches for five months, on March 3, 2016, she was able to walk without them. She hasn’t slowed down at all ever since.
“That’s not to say every day is perfect. Walking is still challenging and I still have significant impairment. I wear leg braces, follow a training program for two-to-three hours per day and on the days when my legs feel more paralyzed, I have my chair or crutches on standby. But my struggle is now less visible,” she explains.
The nature of the injury and the daily struggle it takes to keep making progress are known only to her coach and her closest family members.
“But it’s all worth it. It’s been 10 years since I was able to look someone in the eye instead of staring at everyone’s butts all day.”
Victoria was confused when she got out of her wheelchair for the first time.
She had no idea how others would take her.
“But then I realized this is my journey and nobody else’s and maybe it can give hope to people who need it most.”
After a difficult decade, Victoria has finally found herself.
She has won a gold medal in the Paralympic Games, is the host of an ESPN sports program, and is, above all else, a fighter.
Victoria is an inspiration to many and is sometimes referred to as a “walking, talking miracle.” But there is one thing she wants to make clear.
“I didn’t do this on my own, and I am grateful for everyone who has helped me to this point. Each day, I become more comfortable with my new reality. I thought taking those steps on March 3 would be my finish line. But really, they were only the beginning.”
What an amazing adventure this courageous and fearless woman has taken on!
The least we can do is spread the word about her fight so that everyone we know can be encouraged by her example.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
Our hopes and prayers are with you always. Victoria.
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