Victoria by Patty LaRoche

Patty LaRoche

Face it. Embrace it. Defy it.” That motto has become the driving force for Victoria Arlen who, at the age of eleven, slipped into a vegetative state from which survival was unlikely.

Arlen shared her story in her new book, Locked In. “My back and side ached, so doctors took out my appendix,” she wrote. “Then my legs began giving out. My foot dragged. Within two weeks, I lost all feeling and function in my legs. Next, my hands stopped working. I couldn’t control my arms, couldn’t swallow properly, or find the right words when I wanted to speak.” Arlen says she was “slowly slipping away” from her family before “everything went dark.” Two years later, she woke up but couldn’t move. She could hear the conversations going on around her—including doctors claiming there was “no hope”– but had no way of letting anyone know. After three years, she was diagnosed with two autoimmune disorders that caused swelling in her brain and spinal cord. Arlen’s family refused to believe the prognosis and set up a hospital room in their house. In December 2009, after four years in a vegetative state, Arlen made eye contact with her mom. Unbeknownst to her parents and twin brothers (they are triplets), Arlen had been writing screen plays in her head, practicing her times tables and listening to Good Morning America. More importantly, she constantly dialogued with God, promising if she was given a second chance, she would “not waste a single moment.” Over the next year she gained more control. “Raw sounds became words, became sentences. A twitch of my index finger became the wave of my hand. The ability to swallow pudding eventually led to me mowing on a steak.” The wheelchair became her legs, after being told she would be paralyzed from her belly button down for the rest of her life. Her brothers disagreed, and remembering what a “water baby” their sister was growing up, threw her into the pool. “I was terrified,” she wrote. “But it was a turning point in my life. It was the ‘jump’ I needed to get back to my life. When I was swimming, I was free from the chair. And to my surprise, I was still good. In the water, I found freedom — and my confidence.” Arlen’s difficulties were not over. After missing five years of school, she went back in 2010 and was surprised that she was bullied for being in a wheelchair. Instead of quitting, that fueled her passion to dig into her studies and graduate…and swim. At age 17, Arlen made the USA Paralympic swim team and competed at the London Games, bringing home three silver medals and a gold in the 100-meter freestyle and setting a world record in the 100-meter free. On March 3, 2016, six years after waking up, six years after working up to six hours a day learning to walk, Arlen, strapped into a harness above a treadmill, took her first step. You might know her better as a 2017 semi-finalist in the hit show Dancing With the Stars or as a television personality for ESPN. Both Victoria and her mother, Jacqueline, say all this tragedy happened for a divinely-appointed reason.  “I wouldn’t choose this life,” Victoria said, “but I wouldn’t change it…I think there’s a lot of people going through different things where you feel like your whole world’s imploded and you feel like you lost it all, whether it’s physical, emotional, whatever you’re going through…If I can be that beacon of hope for people that need it the most through dancing and through our storytelling, then I’ve done my job.”

And how does Jacqueline hope Victoria’s story “impacts the world”?  “Bring them to Jesus!” she exclaimed.  “That’s what we want to do, to bring them to find God’s light and love, to give faith and hope, and to realize that all is not lost.  That you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.  That’s what we really want at the end of the day. I pray we all can say the same.

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