Victoria Arlen has lived through more obstacles and suffering than anyone could ever conceive. From 2006 to 2010, Arlen was dealing with a combination of two extremely rare diseases, Transverse Myelitis and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis. The amalgamation of both sicknesses, the first being a disorder that causes inflammation of the spinal cord, according to John Hopkins Medicine, and the other an ailment creating swelling in the brain, put her in a vegetative state. Through her 23 years on earth, four of them were spent in immobility and silence, two of which she spent fully aware of her surroundings yet unable to communicate. In other words, a nightmare.
As a young child, born as a triplet to two brothers, Arlen was very active. She loved dancing, swimming and playing hockey, until the early age of eleven. What her parents thought were mere flu-like symptoms turned out to be a life-changing illness that abruptly sent their daughter down a dark path. At 11 years old, she contracted pneumonia and two weeks later was paralyzed from the waist down, which later led to a coma. At the time, doctors were unable to diagnose her, and Arlen watched her body shut down until she lost cognitive function.
“I was really scared,” she told People. “I knew if I just stopped fighting, I wouldn’t be in pain or suffering anymore — but dying was the easy way out.” With this mentality, she was able to push through and eventually saw changes. “I kept reminding myself of what was good — and that I was still there,” she says. Her family set up a hospital room in their home to take care of her and talked to her. Though they didn’t know she could hear them, it helped her a great deal and in 2009 she was finally able to make eye contact with her mother. Eye contact turned into arm mobility, which eventually led to an able-bodied, talking young girl. The only downside was that she was told she’d be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, but that didn’t stop her.
In 2012, Arlen made the USA Paralympic swim team and competed at the London Games where she brought home three silver medals and a gold in the 100-meter freestyle. She set a world record, ushering her onto an even greater path. Determined to walk again, she traveled across the country to find help. “I found the hope I needed at Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center based in San Diego. Through the Dardzinski Method, an activity-based therapy, Project Walk has helped many people dealing with paralysis to regain function and even walk,” she wrote for ESPN. In 2015, her family opened Project Walk Boston, so that they could remain home and help countless other people struggling with disabilities.
On March 3rd, 2016, Arlen took her first steps. This moment was a turning point in not only her life but in the lives of many others following her journey as it signified hope for recovery. “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 wrote for ESPN.
Today, she continues to be an inspiration to numerous people around the world as she takes on new challenges day in and day out. You might recognize her smiling face as one of ESPN’s television personalities, or as a semi-finalist on the 25th season of Dancing With The Stars. She has persistently made it a point to push herself not just physically, but mentally too. Her new book, set to release in August 2018, entitled Locked In: The Will to Survive and the Resolve to Live, will give readers a chance to understand her mind as she went through hardships and regained strength.
Arlen’s resilience is a lesson to us all on how gratitude and positivity can go a long way no matter what painful situations you are facing. “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,” she tells ESPN.