"Dancing with the Stars" competitor reflects on her resolve to live when struck by mystery illness as a child
Imagine being mentally aware of what’s going on around you, but being unable to talk, move, or even blink your eyes. That’s what happened to ESPN broadcaster and former “Dancing with the Stars” competitor Victoria Arlen when she was just a young girl and was struck by a mystery illness that doctors kept insisting was all in her mind.
Well, it wasn’t in her mind. But Victoria fought her way back to health and a full life with help from her family and her faith, and she recently joined me on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss her new memoir “Locked In: The Will to Survive and the Resolve to Live.”
In 2006, Victoria began experiencing unexplained pain, weight loss, and tiredness. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the previously energetic fifth grader, so they kept saying, “It’s all in her head.”
Meanwhile, Victoria continued to deteriorate, losing the ability to walk, control her arms, and swallow food without choking. Her cognitive function also began diminishing, with her head feeling like it was being “squeezed in a vise.”
Again, doctors found no reason for her symptoms, so they moved her to a wing of the hospital that dealt with psychiatric patients. Though Victoria had learned about heaven and hell in Sunday school, she came to discover that “there are forms of hell on this earth.”
In the hospital, she was physically and verbally abused by the medical staff, who seemed to think that being rough with her would snap her out of her condition. “You deserve this,” they told her repeatedly. But Victoria couldn’t convey what was going on when her parents visited, so this continued for some time.
In “Locked In,” Victoria writes, “Even if the nurses and doctors here are convinced that their rough and cruel methods are helping me, I have to say that unkindness never makes things better. And even if my sickness were psychological, how would inflicting pain make me better? If anything, love should be the core of any kind of treatment.”
Through it all, Victoria prayed for God to heal her, to grant her another chance at life. But her pain eventually got so unbearable that she believed she was going to die.
Suddenly, a Bible verse popped into her head: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
Victoria writes, “The fear, to my surprise, quickly disappears as this incredible calmness and love surround me. I can only describe it as the love of God.”
Victoria regained consciousness then, and her family finally got her out of that hospital. Her medical problems remained, however, and she ended up in a different hospital where she fell into a coma for over a year.
In 2009, Victoria’s mind awakened, but her body didn’t. She couldn’t control anything, but she could hear the grim reports that doctors gave her family every day, assuming she was still in a vegetative state. As difficult as it was to remain hopeful, Victoria began focusing her mind on her will to live and accomplish great things in her life.
The only outside hope Victoria received at this time came from the visit of a Catholic priest from Africa named Father Bashobora. He was present on her 15th birthday to pray with the family as Victoria endured seizures every few minutes. Father Bashobora kept saying, “In time, she will be healed.” They all started to believe him.
Though there was still pain and darkness for Victoria after that visit, she one day received a new sleeping medication that unintentionally stopped her seizures and pain. More importantly, she was able to blink, which allowed her to communicate with her family again and soon after regain the use of parts of her body.
Though Victoria was confined to a wheelchair, the sports-loving teen decided she wanted to participate in some athletic activity. Initially, that was sled hockey, but then she got back into swimming, which led to her winning a gold medal in the 2012 London Paralympics for athletes with physical challenges.
In 2015, she earned a job as a broadcaster on ESPN. In 2016, she learned to walk again for the first time in years. And in 2017, she became a competitor on “Dancing with the Stars” (partnered with pro Valentin Chmerkovskiy), even though there were times when she had trouble feeling her legs on the dance floor.
Victoria’s life is on a positive path now, and she remains committed to helping others, especially through the Victoria’s Victory Foundation, which provides emotional and financial support to those with mobility challenges and special needs, allowing them to accomplish personal victories.
And despite the fact that Victoria was treated cruelly by some of her caretakers in the past, she opens her book with Jesus’s quote from Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
She told me, “I have been able to forgive [those people]. I’ve realized that a lot of my pain was caused by holding onto the hurt. Being able to sit down with my pastor and dive into the words, that Scripture stuck with me. That’s why I wanted to begin the book with that: because it’s very true that forgiveness is not for them, but for my own sake so that I can be free from the stronghold of that abuse.”
Victoria needed to forgive and move beyond another major blunder by her medical staff in the past as well. While visiting a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 2013, he reviewed her medical history and quickly deduced that she had two conditions called “Transverse Myelitis” and “Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis.” He told her that “a simple round of steroids” could have prevented the inflammatory process that destroyed her body and nearly killed her.
While there wasn’t as much knowledge about those conditions in 2006 as there is today, a more proactive approach by doctors could have found the solution. The realization that all of her troubles could have been avoided knocked the wind out of Victoria, but she chose to focus on the future instead.
She concluded, “I hope that people [who read “Locked In”] have hope and know that life is a series of climbing mountains. You have to keep climbing, even when it hurts, even when it’s tough, even when you hit rock bottom. In my case, I’ve hit it multiple times. But you can also have…an extraordinary life…I’m grateful that I have some incredible light workers in my life. When they see I’m in a tough space, they step up and are there for me and believe in me…Leaning on the ones I love the most – and knowing that God is bigger [than everything] – is a huge part of what keeps me going.”
(To listen to my full interview with Victoria Arlen, click on the podcast link):