22 Aug 2014
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GCHS Student Overcame Spinal Cord Injury, Paralysis to Run Again

Jen Starzec was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a rare neuro-immune disorder, in August 2011.

GCHS Student Overcame Spinal Cord Injury, Paralysis to Run Again
When Grayslake Central High School sophomore Jen Starzec registered for school her freshman year, she wanted to pursue her love of running. She signed up for cross country. 

At the time, however, it wasn't clear whether Jen would be successful in her quest. 

"We didn't really think that was realistic," said Jen's mom, Lisa Starzec. 

Just a year before, Jen, an avid runner, awoke with an intense pain in her neck that then spread to her shoulders and legs, eventually leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.  

She was diagnosed with a rare spinal cord injury called Transverse Myelitis, a neuro-immune disorder. Though the specific cause is unknown, Lisa said she suspects that Jen's Crohn's Disease caused her immune system to essential "go haywire."

In October, Jen and her family will participate in the first Illinois Walk-Run-N-Roll for the Transverse Myelitis Association. The event will be held at McCullum Park in Downers Grove.

"I am very proud of what she's come through and where she's at," said Lisa.

The Diagnosis

Jen's journey started with a trip to a local emergency room. She had been screaming in pain. By the time she was transferred from the ER to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, "she couldn't even sit up," said Lisa. The diagnosis came a couple of days later after physicians at Lutheran General performed an MRI and discovered that Jen's body was essentially attacking her spine.

"They treated her very aggressively there," said Lisa. The only known treatments for Transverse Myelitis are plasma exchange and steroids. Jen's treatment began with 6,500 milligrams of Prednisone the first day.
The Prednisone dosage was tapered down from there. Jen responded well to the steroids, and the inflammation on her spinal cord improved, Lisa said. 

Within a few days, Jen slowly started to walk again. Because of the location of the injury—the upper spine—Jen's arms were more affected. 

Jen's Recovery

Physical therapy helped Jen regain her ability to walk again. The strength in her left arm has improved significantly, but her right arm still suffers from muscle atrophy. Jen uses that arm largely as a "helper arm," Lisa said.

"I was a righty. I had to learn to write with my left hand," said Jen. She also did a lot of typing on her iPad. She even used the iPad to co-author a book with Sarah Todd Hammer, a friend—and fellow Transverse Myelitis patient—she'd met over the Internet. They titled the book, "5K, Ballet and a Spinal Cord Injury."

"It still hurts my hand a lot to type for a long time," said Jen. It also hurts her back to sit for long periods of time, and she sleeps with a brace on her right arm for support.

Ready to Run Again

A year after her injury, Jen felt ready to take up running again. In July 2012, at freshman orientation at GCHS, she signed up for cross country. Jen started at a 12-minute-mile pace but eventually worked up to averaging a 7-minute mile.
When winter hit, Jen's pain returned and she was sidelined. The cold causes nerve pain and muscle spasms, Lisa said.   

"I wasn't really training much in the winter. It was hard to build back up to where I was at the end of last year's season," said Jen. "I kind of have to start from scratch."

Jen remains on various medications, including one for pain. She is also dealing with scoliosis and osteoporosis, along with blurred vision. Lisa said the latter may be caused by lesions on the brain stem that doctors can't see. Lisa said it's unclear whether Jen's right arm will return to normal.

Through all of the tests—including MRIs and spinal taps—and her recovery, Jen stayed resilient. 

"She has a very strong will," said Lisa. 

Raising Money for the Transverse Myelitis Association

Now, the Starzec family is focusing on raising awareness about Transverse Myelitis. They plan to walk in the Illinois Walk-Run-N-Roll event in Downers Grove Oct. 6. Jen will read an excerpt from her book at the event. 

If you'd like to donate to the cause, visit the Illinois Walk-Run-N-Roll website. To purchase a copy of Jen's book, visit her website. A third of all of the proceeds from the book sales will be donated to the Transverse Myelitis Association.

Check out what Jen's coach had to say about her:

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