By Lizzie DeGanga
Never say never.
Stacey Kozel 41, of Medina, Ohio was diagnosed with Lupus when she was 19. In March 2014, she had her worst flare-up to date and spent weeks in the hospital after the disease attacked her spinal cord.
She left the hospital nearly completely paralyzed, only able to move her left arm. After months of intense physical therapy Kozel regained some of her arm and core strength, but her legs were left permanently paralyzed.
Kozel uses a power wheelchair to get around. When she’s not in the chair, she uses leg braces that lock her knees and can control her legs by using her upper body, hips and core to walk. She lost the ability to walk after spending many weeks in the hospital. She walks with the help of braces.
Kozel, who was active in sports and loved being outside, said she didn’t know where her life was heading.
“I just [dreamed] about getting back outdoors,” she said.
“It’s hard to believe I’m actually standing here at the U.S.A.-Canadian border,” Kozel said in a video she taped on the trail. “Feels good!”
From March to September, Kozel, traveled 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, through Washington, Oregon and California solo. Kozel traveled all by herself and completed the Appalachian Trail hike through 14 states.
‘The toughest day on the trail is still better than the best day in the hospital or those days in the hospital when she felt trapped and needed people to help her lift her head or sit up.,’ she told ABC News. ‘I tried to keep remembering that on the tough days.’
‘Lupus does send me on little excursions and adventures to the hospital and doctors, but for the most part, I don’t want lupus to change who I am,’ she said.
‘I just want to keep going, getting outdoors, and I thought, in the meantime, you know, bring awareness to Lupus and show people what it’s like,’ Kozel said.
“Even though my legs don’t work, I’ve had to use my upper body to adjust, to figure out how to keep standing,” she said. “And sometimes, you know, I fall but I know how to keep myself safe when I do fall… I just always believe that it just matters that you keep getting back up.”
As she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, people reached out to her, both on the trail and on social media, to encourage her, and to share their stories and struggles.
“This hike has become bigger than me and when I’m out there, I really want to do it for all of them,” she said. “They really keep me motivated.”