At this very moment, Stacey Kozel is walking on the Appalachian Trail — the 2,190-mile hike that spans 14 states, five national parks, and a whole lot of unforgiving, mountainous terrain.
Two years ago, she was in a wheelchair.
Now, Kozel, 41, is using her hike to spread the word about the revolutionary technology that made it all possible — one hard-fought step at a time.
An autoimmune disease left her immobile when she was 19 years old.
Kozel was diagnosed with lupus — an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own tissues and organs — when she was 19 years old. The disease attacked Kozel’s brain and spinal cord, compromising her ability to move. And in March 2014, an unusually severe flare-up rendered her almost completely immobile.
“I needed a power wheelchair when I was finally released from the hospital,” Kozel told INSIDER in an email. “I quickly lost all mobility, couldn’t sit up, lift my head up — it was the worst feeling.”
She learned about a new type of high-tech braces.
After her release from the hospital, Kozel used her laptop and her left arm — her only functioning limb at the time — to research ways she could get back on her feet. That’s when she found out about a new technology called the C-Brace, manufactured by Germany prosthetics company Ottobock and first introduced in the US 2012.
Traditional leg braces support the leg in one position: straight. They allow patients to walk around, but only with a locked-knee, stiff-legged gait.
The C-Brace is like a high-tech exoskeleton that helps paralysed people walk.
It has built-in computers and sensors that automatically adjust in real time to support the legs in any position — not just when they’re straight. They allow people with nerve damage, post-polio, and varying levels of paralysis to walk smoothly and naturally (as long as they are able to stand up on their own and retain some amount of hip muscle function). Even though each brace costs a whopping $75,000, Kozel was determined to get them.
But in order to be a candidate for the technology, she needed to regain mobility and control in her core and arms. So Kozel fought through months of gruelling physical and occupational therapy until she could finally sit up and push herself around in a wheelchair.
That’s when she asked her doctors about C-Braces. No one on her rehab team had heard of them before, but they wrote her a prescription — and even helped her battle the insurance company that refused to cover the devices at first, deeming them “not necessary.” After a year, Kozel’s claim was approved by her insurer and she was fitted with the high-tech braces — she was finally on her feet.
In March 2016, she set out to hike the Appalachian Trail — with the help of the C-Braces.
For Kozel, the hike is about more than just personal achievement: She wants to spread the word about her braces so others who struggle with walking can learn about them, too. She also wants insurance companies to see the value in the devices.
Without her C-Braces, she said, she’d have to push herself in a wheelchair. But with them, she’s already travelled about 900 miles on foot, without any assistance.
“I figured if I can show insurance companies I can get up and down mountains, maybe they would see they’re necessary to improve the quality of life for other people,” she told WVIR.
She still has a long way to go — but she’s not giving up.
This weekend, Kozel reached what hikers call the “psychological halfway point” of the trail: Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. She’s still not sure when she’ll reach the finish point at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“It takes most hikers five to seven months, so it will probably take me longer,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are times I need to come off the trail to charge my braces and rest. I knew it was going to be very challenging, and my hiking wasn’t going to be fast or pretty.”
She hopes her hike will inspire others to fight through their own setbacks.
“Everyone is struggling with something — lupus, another autoimmune disease, disability, loss of a loved one, loss of a job. Whatever it is, I just hope people do not give up.” she said. “We never know what positive things are in the future unless we keep going.”
See more photos and follow Kozel’s hike on her Facebook page.
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