(ANZA, Calif.) –Stacey Kozel recently hiked the Pacific Crest trail.
It’s an amazing feat for Kozel, who has lupus, and is paralyzed from the waist down, Though she walks with the help of braces, she completed the entire trail alone.
From March to September, Kozel, 41, of Medina, Ohio, traveled 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, through California, Oregon and Washington. Kozel said she traveled solo so she could go at her own pace and take breaks as she felt necessary.
“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!”
She told ABC News today that when the trek got particularly difficult, she reminded herself of those days in the hospital when she felt trapped and needed people to help her lift her head or sit up.
Kozel had battled lupus since her teens, but said she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 19 years old. According to the Mayo Clinic, lupus is “a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs.” The organs that may be affected by lupus include the kidneys, heart and lungs.
In March 2014, she was hospitalized during a flare-up that attacked her spinal cord. Within three days, she said, she’d lost mobility. At the time, she said, she could only move her left arm.
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.
After physical and occupational therapies, she eventually regained some arm and core strength but her legs remained paralyzed. She was able to leave the hospital, but now uses a wheelchair or braces to walk. In 2016, Kozel completed the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail.
“The toughest day on the trail is still better than the best day in the hospital,” she told ABC News. “I [tried] to keep remembering that on the tough days.”
Kozel said she doesn’t want lupus to control her anymore than it already does.
“[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 she’s still getting stronger with balancing herself and learning how her body works.
“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.”
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