12.18.11

Is It Possible to Become Un-Paralyzed? Monique van der Vorst Says It Happened to Her

For more than a decade, Monique van der Vorst was unable to walk, due to a surgery gone awry. Now she’s on her feet. She tells her remarkable tale.

When Monique van der Vorst was a teenager, she lost the ability to walk. Now, 14 years later, she has regained it. It’s a story straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. People don’t become unparalyzed. “But it certainly seems that I did,” she says.

It all began when she was a 13-year-old girl, growing up in the Netherlands. A routine ankle surgery on a painful tendon led to complications including a build-up of fluid in her left leg. The Dutch teenager, an avid field hockey, soccer, and tennis player, went to rehab, but as the swelling abated, her leg grew numb. Doctors told her a nerve had been compressed and damaged. She was shocked to learn that her leg would be permanently devoid of feeling.

“It was horrible,” says van der Vorst, now 27, from her home near Amsterdam. “All my friends could walk, and I was in a wheelchair.” She remembers attending parties with her teenage pals, who towered over her in her chair. She gave crutches a try, but the strain was too great on her right knee. The young athlete was crushed by her new reality.

Over the months, things started looking up a little, when she discovered a hand-cycle, a three-wheel bike powered by arm strength. She began riding to school and through the streets of her hometown, delighting in the freedom she felt. On weekends, she took off on seven-hour cycling sprees. Gradually, she began to put her feelings of sadness and anger behind her. “When I was riding, I could escape all the bad news and feel that I was still alive,” she says.

At 15, she entered her first race. “I was always good in sports, and I saw I still had opportunities,” she says. She decided to throw herself into her sport, scheduling homework around rigorous training sessions. In 2002, she competed for the World Championship title, and won. “When I was there on the stage and heard my country’s anthem, I thought, I have a new life, a new purpose,” she says. She went on to college but stuck to her training, defending her title in 2004, and again in 2006. Then she qualified for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, where women hand-cyclists would compete for the first time.

Then, just five months before the Games, came another unbelievable blow. While out cycling one day, van der Vorst was hit by an elderly driver. The severe accident caused damage to her good leg, as well as short-term memory and concentration problems, and damage to her thoracic spine. “I couldn’t hold my head up. I had to learn to eat again,” she says. “Of course I thought, Why me? But I knew that if I felt sorry for myself, I wouldn’t succeed.”

Determined to make it to Beijing, she focused all of her energy on rehab. “I really blocked all my emotions, all the pain and everything, to go for that one goal,” she says. She competed in a neck brace—and took home two silver medals. She continued to rack up medals over the next few years. There seemed to be nothing standing between her and the gold at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

That’s when her life took another incredibly strange turn. In March 2010, during a training ride, she slowed down a bit too suddenly, and a bike on her tail slammed into her with crushing force. The crash sent her upper body into spasms and landed her back in the hospital. While there, something remarkable happened: she felt a heavy tingling in her left foot. An amazed van der Vorst was told by doctors that she was experiencing “a neurological recovery,” she says. “But they didn’t know how far it would go.” Within a few weeks, she could move her leg.

Is it really possible to become un-paralyzed? “Ask 100 scientists that question, and they’ll all say no.”

She began to work out tirelessly, crawling as she dragged her legs across the floor, and trying relentlessly to stand. “I felt like I was a child learning to walk again,” she says. About four months after the accident, she took her first few steps by herself. She was alone when it happened, and overjoyed. Her family was equally amazed when she shared the news. Says her brother, Joost, who is two years older, “I was so happy that I was crying,” he says. “We always hoped for it, but rational thinking said it would not be possible.”

So is it really scientifically possible to become unparalyzed? “Ask 100 scientists that question, and they’ll all say no—it’s a permanent condition,” says Phillip Popovich, a neuroscience professor and the director of the Ohio State University Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair. “It’s a truly remarkable incident,” he says of the fact that the Dutch woman can now walk. “There’s no logical or scientifically proven explanation.”

Van der Vorst’s good news, however, meant she would need a new job. She could no longer compete as a hand-cyclist if she could walk. When she sent an email to her teammates, describing the miraculous turn of events, some were thrilled, but others never responded. It reminded her of when she lost friends as a teen because she was wheelchair-bound. This time, she lost friends because she was out of the chair.

She decided to tackle a two-wheel bike, starting with a wobbly first ride and graduating to a racing bike within months. This past summer, she completed a 20-day, nearly 2,000-mile ride from Italy to Holland. Last month, she signed with a professional women’s cycling team sponsored by the Dutch bank Rabobank. Now she is paid to train alongside Olympic and World Cup champions; she’ll start small, with local races, but plans to progress to international competitions. Says her former hand-cycling trainer, Martin Truijens, “There are many ways to think about the mechanisms, how it’s all possible, but to me it’s like a miracle.”

Van der Vorst now juggles a 20-hour weekly training schedule as she finishes her bachelor’s degree and works toward a master’s in human-movement science. She’s also finishing a memoir, which will be released in the Netherlands next month. “I have no idea how to explain it,” she says, reflecting on her phenomenal life story. “Sometimes you have to fall and rise to get where you need to be.”