Edmonton·Video

Edmonton fighter back on his feet after battle with rare brain disease

Victor Valimaki takes a few laboured steps across his hospital room, leaning heavily into a metal walker.

'I was a big mess for a long time,' says retired MMA fighter Victor Valimaki

Victor Valimaki, 36, was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a rare disorder of the central nervous system that mimics multiple sclerosis. (David Bajer/CBC)

Victor Valimaki took a few laboured steps across his hospital room, leaning heavily into a metal walker.

After those difficult steps from his bed, Valimaki returned home Friday after six months in hospital battling a rare brain disease.

Valimaki, a 17-year veteran of MMA and the first fighter from Edmonton to make it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a rare disorder of the central nervous system that mimics multiple sclerosis.

It occurs when your body's immune system reacts against its own cells in the central nervous system.

'A good change' 

"I have a lot of work to do to get back to normalcy but I'm progressing pretty well," Valimaki said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"I was a big mess for a long time. I wasn't even able to feed myself and I'm just being able to take a few steps now.

"I still have a long way to go but instead of six months in a hospital bed, this is a good change."

For weeks, Valimaki couldn't walk or feed himself. He struggled to speak and was often so disoriented, he didn't know where he was.    

"There are entire blocks of memory just gone," he said. "I actually have brain damage.

"You could tell me your name and 30 seconds later, I couldn't repeat it to you. My memory is really bad and I can't drive. I can't do a lot of things."

Victor Valimaki returned home Friday after six months in hospital battling a rare brain disease. 1:30

Doctors initially struggled to understand what was wrong.

Valimaki, a heavyweight hailed as "The Finnisher," had just finished a match against Teddy Ash at Unified MMA 32 in Edmonton's Royal Palace last September when the first symptoms started.

Valimaki felt foggy and assumed he'd suffered a concussion during the knockout loss. But his symptoms only got worse.

He started losing muscle function in his legs. He was lethargic. His memory was failing. 

'It's going to be a long road'

Finally, after a battery of tests, he was given a clear diagnosis and appeared to be recovering.

Then, there was another setback. Shortly before Christmas, Valimaki developed a brain infection and was again bedridden in the University of Alberta hospital and struggling to speak.

The infection has since subsided and Valimaki has been allowed to continue treatment and rehabilitation from home.

If I never have to look at hospital food again, it would be too soon.- Victor Valimaki

He will have to re-learn to walk, and will be on medication for the rest of his life.  

Even so, Valimaki, 36,  is ready for the challenge  And he's doing it all with his dry sense of humour well intact.

"I don't mind putting the work in. That's no problem," he said. "There's lots I want to do, like go get some tacos. If I never have to look at hospital food again, it would be too soon."

"It's going to be a long road to get there but I would like to get back to the gym and work off some of that hospital food. I'm extremely happy to be out now."

After spending months in hospital, Valimaki is relearning how to walk. (David Bajer/CBC)