Stacey Kozel has been getting national attention in the last few weeks from the likes of Today, Washington Post, Popular Mechanics, and The Weather Channel. And well she should be. Stacey has a life-changing story to tell.
Stacey, a 41-year-old hiker from Medina, Ohio, is in the midst of a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,186 mile trek from Maine to Georgia. And she’s doing it alone. This, however, is not national news nor is it an unusual story for this blog site. What is unusual is that Kozel is paralyzed from the waist down.
When she was 19, Stacey was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage many parts of the body. Lupus often times leaves it impact on an individual during flare-up episodes. She became paralyzed in her legs after one particular flare-up of the disease in March 2014. Stacey told the Washington Post, “It was my worst flare-up. I kind of stumbled into the hospital. … Within a couple of days, I lost all mobility. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t lift my head. It took three people to hold me up, because my body was dead weight, just stiff.”
After this 2014 traumatic flare, Stacey recovered most of the control of her arms and upper body, but her legs never responded. She found herself restricted to an electric wheelchair, but she began a personal search for anything that could help. She finally discovered the Ottobock C-Brace. The brace actually functions more like a mechanical exoskeleton. The large black brace cups around the foot and extends up the thigh. Its bendable knee joints and sensors that monitor ankle pressure enable great mobility for the user. These microprocessors adjust the hydraulic system (located at the knee) that actually moves the leg. It allows someone with paralyzed legs to walk again because, in essence, it does the walking for you.
Kozel shared, “It’s kind of like a car. The car has hydraulics and when you go over bumps, they kind of give. That’s what these braces do — when walking over holes and terrain, you don’t really feel it.” Kozel was so excited about these braces until she saw a price tag: $75,000….each! She couldn’t afford these new legs. But through great perseverance and diligence, she convinced an insurance company to approve her need.
The C-Braces are pretty incredible but they’re not perfect. First, when she faces boulders and steep inclines or embankments, she has to throw her backpack ahead. Then she sits and pulls herself up backwards, scooting along. This will continue to be a challenge especially over the White Mountains in New Hampshire and wilderness of southern Maine. Second, the braces cannot get wet. Rain, therefore, can be problematic, since it sometimes forces her to remain in her tent to wait until the storm passes by. The Appalachian Trail presents many days of rain. Third, they require a new charge every two days. During most of the trail, a charge every two days will possible, although inconvenient. But I think a few of the stretches, like the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, will create a substantial challenge.
The June 23 online issue of TODAY stated that Stacey has hiked over 905 miles of the trail since starting her journey on March 24. She’s hoping to reach the halfway mark by July 4. In this article, Stacey shared, “I didn’t start out doing this because I thought it was going to be easy. It’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be fast, but I’ll get there. I’ve always wanted to hike, but just I felt like I was trapped in my wheelchair. I was just dying to get outside.”
She made it! Check out her picture from Harpers Ferry complete with her trail name, “Ironwill.” The ATC is not the geographic half-way point (which is another 70 miles away), but Harpers Ferry, WV, certainly is the emotional/psychological half-way spot for thru-hikers.
Stacey Kozel updates the world on her adventure on a public Facebook page.
Photo of Stacey http://www.nwcn.com/news/health/high-tech-braces-aid-handicapped-hiker/262010477
Photo at Damascus http://www.littlethings.com/stacey-kozel-hikes-appalachian-trail/