Hiking 2,000 miles while paralyzed? Sounds impossible.
But Stacy Kozel, who lost the function of her legs in 2014, is doing just that by hiking all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail with a pair of high-tech braces.
And she’s embarking on the remarkable journey alone.
Spanning thousands of miles of the eastern United States, the Appalachian Trail covers rugged terrain that’s challenging for even the most experienced hikers —only one in four people are able complete the entire trail, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website.
When she was 19 years old, Kozel was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue, the Washington Post reported. At its worst, the disease would attack Kozel’s central nervous system during periods she calls “flare-ups,” causing her to lose muscle function.
After a car crash in March 2014, the lupus caused Kozel to lose control of her arms, upper body and legs. Though she eventually regained control of her arms and upper body, her legs remained permanently paralyzed.
Kozel got around using a wheelchair and braces that allowed her to walk with stiff legs, until she learned of a high-tech leg brace called “C-brace” by German prosthetics company Ottobock.
The sophisticated braces act as a computer-controlled mechanical exoskeleton, allowing its users to bend and place weight on the knees to mimic the natural rhythms of walking.
They were the perfect tools to help her walk again, but at $75,000 per brace, her insurance company deemed them “not necessary” and rejected her request for the company to pay for them in full.
She had to fight with the insurers for months before she was able to convince them to cover the cost ― and with the new technology in her possession, she could pursue her dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
During four months of hiking, Kozel has been updating the world through her Facebook page, in hopes that her journey will not only inspire others to follow their dreams, but also convince insurance companies to cover technology like her C-brace.
“My goal is not only to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, but (also) to prove the benefits of technology to insurance companies,” Kozel wrote in a Facebook post. “I believe technology should not be a luxury when it can help someone improve their quality of life.”