“I kept reminding myself of what was good — and that I was still there,” Arlen tells PEOPLE

Victoria Arlen was the last kid you’d ever expect would end up in the hospital.

“I never got sick,” the ESPN personality and Dancing with the Stars contestant, 23, says in the current issue of PEOPLE of growing up in New Hampshire playing hockey and swimming with her three brothers.

But around her 11th birthday, Arlen began getting frequent colds and flus. Doctors were perplexed as her health deteriorated and by July 2006 she began feeling numbness in her feet. Two weeks later she was hospitalized as she lost mobility and cognitive function.

“My nerves were dying,” she says. “I literally watched as my body shut down.”

She would eventually be diagnosed with transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (two rare autoimmune conditions that cause inflammation of the spinal cord and brain), but at the time doctors, were unable to diagnose Arlen and advised her parents to take her home. Her family moved a hospital bed into the ground floor of their two-story house.