Every year thousands of ambitious hikers set out to traverse the Appalachian Mountains. This year, Stacey Kozel shares this inconceivable dream. But what sets Kozel apart from the average hiker is that she’s paralyzed from the chest down. After a car accident and a newly triggered autoimmune disease collided, Kozel’s Central Nervous System was compromised.
Recalling the day that she began to lose control over her lower body, she states: “I walked into the hospital and within days lost all mobility”. After months of testing and physical therapy, Kozel’s doctors determined that she would never fully regain the use of her legs.
Lupus was the perpetrator. Kozel explains: “Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can attack any part of your body. In my case it really seems to like my Central Nervous System (spinal cord). It is common to have “flare-ups” with lupus, and every flare-up I have had has seemed to get worse. Luckily, I was able to rebuild my muscles and gain control of my core and arm strength with a lot of rehab”. Thanks to Ottobock’s C Braces, just over two year later, Kozel can be found in the wilderness, determined to re-define herself by her achievements rather than her circumstances.
Determined to walk again, she adamantly pursued the C Braces although her insurance company deemed them as an unnecessary cost. Part of Kozel’s goal in hiking the Appalachian Trail is to bring awareness to the incredible C Braces, and to show insurance companies how drastically they can alter one’s quality of life.
The journey to Kozel’s present situation wasn’t easy. Kozel quotes: “I had braces that locked at my knees and I had to walk stiff legged. Last October I hiked Katahdin with a friend with the locking braces. I pushed those braces passed their limits … have hydraulics that allow me to bend my knee and have some “give” on the uneven terrain. My orthotist just explained to me that the hydraulics is the same as we have in our vehicles. It helps the vehicle to remain smooth when we hit rough terrain or bumps in the road”. Although the locking braces allowed Kozel to hike one of the tallest mountains on the East Coast, the C Braces are revolutionizing her life in the mountains. She continues to put miles behind her with the help of this elite technology– a feat that would have been impossible given an inferior model.
This drastic life-change served as a catalyst rather than a dead-end for Kozel: ” If anything makes me want to live life more…I do not want to laying in the hospital next time with any regrets”. Despite some colossal setbacks, Kozel was strengthened by a gratitude for the strength that remained.
An exemplary tale of re-defining capabilities, Kozel states: “Nobody really knows what each of are capable of in our lives. We might even surprise ourselves sometimes. I like to take one day at a time and do whatever I can to live that day to the fullest. I believe there might be many times we fall but I would rather fall a million times than never try. If I don’t try every day than I am not my not living my life”. As she nears the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Kozel encourages others to move past their delusional boundaries and to relish the moments that remain within our control. Living fully, as Kozel exhibits, begins with gratitude and determination.