In 2006 at just 11 years old, Victoria Arlen lost the ability to eat, speak, walk, and move. Two rare conditions caused her to slip into a vegetative state. Doctors said that she would remain this way forever. Her family, however, never gave up, and neither did she. Four years later she woke up and came out of her coma. Since then she has not stopped shocking physicians all over the world with what she can achieve. This is her inspiring story.
The Inspiring Story of Victoria Arlen
Up until the age of 11, Victoria Arlen was a perfectly normal little girl. The only girl in a set of triplets and also with another older brother, she grew up playing lots of sports and being highly active. She loved to dance and was gifted athletically. Suddenly, after she turned 11, everything began to change.
First, she developed flu-like symptoms. This then turned into pneumonia. Soon after she began fainting frequently. She found herself frequently in her family doctor’s office. He attempted to treat her recurring illnesses and ear infections, but she kept having to come back. What no one realized is that she had two rare diseases that were slowly destroying her spine. (1)
Over the course of the year, she slowly began losing control of her feet, until eventually she could no longer get out of bed. This continued to then lose control of her fingers, then she began losing the ability to speak.
“It was as if someone was shutting off all the switches of my main control system,” she told VICE. (2)
No one understood what was happening to her. Finally, one day, Victoria slipped into a coma. The “switch” had been completely turned off.
For two years, Victoria had no memory. During those two years, doctors worked continuously to try and figure out what had caused her coma. Finally, they discovered that she had an autoimmune condition called transverse myelitis (TM). This disease attacks the spinal cord and can cause paralysis to different extents. If there is no improvement within three to six months of the onset of the disease, complete recovery is unlikely.
The Initially Awakening
Victoria Arlen says that she “woke up” from her coma before she actually woke up from it fully. She regained consciousness, but she was unable to move or communicate with anyone. Victoria had no idea that two years had passed. She could hear everything that people were saying around her, but had no way of telling them that she was at least partially awake. The now 13-year-old tried to talk to them and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t until later that she realized that the words she thought she was saying out loud, she was only saying in her head.
Victoria soon realized that though she could see, she could only look in the direction that her head was pointing. She was completely unable to move her body, including her neck.
“I realized very quickly no one could hear me,” she said. “I realized, Something’s really wrong.”
Listening to everything happening around her, she slowly began piecing together what had happened. She overheard conversations in her hospital room that made her panic like you couldn’t imagine.
“I was either going to be a vegetable or I was going to die,” she recalled. “I was never going to speak again, walk again, move again,”
Victoria remembers conversations between two doctors who were judging her parents for thinking that she would ever recover. Despite the doctors’ pessimistic view, Victoria’s parents and brothers remained faithful.
The Gateway To Recovery
Victoria lived trapped inside her body like that for an entire year. Then finally, in the winter of 2009, she was able to do something she hadn’t been able to do thus far. She made eye contact with her mom. Her mom asked her to blink twice if she was really there. Thankfully, Victoria was able to do so. Her mom calls this their Christmas miracle. It was the sign they needed to prove to the doctors that their daughter was not lost forever.
That moment, that eye contact, changed everything. Her recovery began happening much more quickly and eventually, she was able to go home. Bit by bit, she began gaining control over her body again. She began physical therapy and speech therapy. Victoria had to re-learn how to do even basic things like hold up her head again. The next year, though in a wheelchair and still unable to eat food, she was able to return to school.
Read: 23-Year-Old Single Woman Adopts 13 Kids to Devote Her Life to Them, Births Her Own Baby Soon After
The hard-working girl she always was, she put in the work and was still able to graduate on time, despite the years she spent in a coma. By that time, everything seemed to be getting back on track – except for her legs. They were the only thing that still hadn’t improved. Her doctors told her she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life.
Before her illness, she was an accomplished member of the swim team. She was scared that she would never swim again. Her brothers, however, disagreed with her. One day in 2010, they decided to just throw her in the pool. At first, she was terrified. Quickly, however, she realized she could still swim, just without using her legs. That was the beginning of something incredible.
“It was the ‘jump’ I needed to get back to my life. When I was swimming, I was free from the chair,” she said.
Six years after initially becoming sick, when Victoria was 17, she won three silver medals and a gold medal in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. This included setting a world record in the 100m freestyle event.
Determined To Walk Again
Later on, the International Paralympic Committee disqualified her from the Montreal World Championships because they said her condition may not be permanent. This, despite still being completely unable to use her legs. It was frustrating, but Victoria did not let it keep her down. She continued training daily to hopefully one day stand on her own two feet.
“I’d already overcome the impossible. I’d woken up and re-learned to live. My idea of what is possible had changed. When my doctors said I would never walk, I didn’t believe them. I knew I wasn’t meant to spend my life in a chair.” (3)
Finally, in the fall of 2015, she felt a flicker in her legs. They kept pushing. Before they knew it, Victoria was on crutches, and then with what she called “big honking leg braces”. By March, she was able to take her first steps – her first in nearly 10 years.
Victoria and her family worked extensively with Project Walk in Carlsbad, California. This is the paralysis recovery center that she credits with helping her take those first steps. In 2014, her family opened a Project Walk in Boston, their hometown on the East Coast.
Opening the center in Boston is what allowed her to continue her training and actually learn to walk again. In 2017, she competed on Dancing With The Stars. Next, she ran the Walt Disney World 5k in 2020. Victoria has achieved things that all of her doctors told her would be impossible. Though she still has work to do on smaller stabilizing muscles in her feet and ankles, she has completely defied all the odds. (4)
She went on to become the host of American Ninja Warrior Junior and become a reporter for ESPN. You can read her book Locked In: The Will To Survive and the Resolve to Live. She also started her own foundation Victoria’s Victory. The foundation’s goal is to provide other people with life-altering illnesses the funds they need to recover.
Victoria is extremely grateful. Grateful for her family who never gave up on her, and just in general that she is alive and mobile and healthy. However she recently experienced a life-threatening relapse of her transverse myelitis, but she is recovering well. Nonetheless, she has learned a lot through her illness, especially about not taking anything, even the tiniest things, for granted.
“Gratitude is what kept me going for many years where things were not going in my favor,” she said. “The fact that I can scratch my nose is a miracle. When I was locked in [my body], I remember thinking ‘If I could just scratch my nose one day that would be the greatest thing in the world!'”
Keep Reading: Johnny Cash Would Sing To Wife Every Half Hour When She Was In A Coma
- Victoria Arlen
- “Once Paralyzed, Victoria Arlen Emerged from a Coma to Become a Champion Athlete.” Vice. Diana Tourjée. October 26, 2016.
- “One small step: My 10-year journey from a wheelchair to walking.” ESPN. Victoria Arlen with Alyssa Roenigk. May 26, 2016.
- “How Victoria Arlen Willed Herself Out of Paralysis to Become a Paralympian.” Shape. Dominique Michelle Astorino. December 4, 2020.