Olivia Hiz moved from Long Island, NY, to the Heart of Dixie to attend The University of Alabama. She fell in love with Southern culture, became a die-hard Crimson Tide fan and adopted an Alabama shelter dog, as well as a family of dear friends and sorority sisters. Looking at the talkative and funny 20-year-old today, you’d think she was your average college girl, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

During spring break of Olivia’s freshman year, she contracted viral encephalitis. Back at school, she thought she was just sick, but was soon discovered unresponsive. Unable to move or speak, Olivia was transferred to the Special Care Unit at UAB. Working with this Delta Force of nurses and her own tough-as-nails determination, she willed herself through an incredible journey of recovery, gaining full command of her body again. Then, armed with a newfound sense of strength and conviction in herself, she fought another battle, convincing family and doctors that she would, in fact, return to her beloved Tuscaloosa friends and sorority sisters that following fall. And she did just that. 

Now in her senior year, Olivia will graduate alongside her friends, earning her fashion retail major and business minor. She plans to return to New York City to pursue a career in fashion marketing. But her heart will forever be intertwined with Alabama, not only to her lifetime college friends, but also to the team at UAB’s Special Care Unit, who helped show her what she is really made of. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Olivia Hiz!

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What advice would Olivia give her high-school self? “I should still probably tell myself this now: Boys are not everything. And take every moment in,” she says.

Tell us what happened at the beach during your freshman year that brought you to UAB.

I went with my friends to Destin, FL, for spring break, and I came back and didn’t feel good. I was really tired and thought that spring break just took a lot out of me. I went to the doctor, and they gave me antibiotics for a sinus infection. But that whole week at school, I don’t really remember it. I remember my roommate saying, “You don’t really look good. Let’s get something to eat.” Apparently I went to dinner with my friends — I don’t remember that — and we had gone to one of my favorite restaurants and I didn’t want to eat anything.

The next day, my roommate, Jackie, found me on the ground unresponsive. She called the ambulance and my mom. They took me to DCH (Druid City Hospital), and I don’t remember much, obviously, because I was unconscious, but everyone said it was really scary.

So, you were at a point where you couldn’t move or speak, and they transferred you to the Special Care Unit at UAB. What changed once you were there?

Everyone came in and basically told me, “You’re going to get physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and these are your nurses,” and they introduced me to every single person on the floor. They said, “If you need anything, this is your button.” There was a schedule, a routine each morning, which I liked.

First with physical therapy, you just move your feet and hands. You’d have to sit up in your bed, and 10 seconds of that felt like 10 hours. Even sitting in a chair and watching TV for a half-hour was just exhausting. So I really learned that we take things for granted — like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, changing your clothes, taking two steps, eating a meal — because I had to re-learn how to do every single one of those things.

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“They deserve a year’s vacation and $20 million,” Olivia says of the UAB Special Care Unit team. “They had my back. They taught me that this sickness would pass, and they helped me overcome every challenge and learn how tough I am.”

What was most challenging about your recovery?

The whole mental battle, because being 18 years old, in your head, you know that you can do it and you feel that this is so annoying, but you have to train your body how to do everything again. I mean, I had to mentally be like, “OK, I’m going to take steps in order to walk, and it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to take a while, but you’ll get to the endpoint.”

They really pushed me to never give up. I remember one time I totally wanted to give up. I was done. I was sitting and crying. And every single person was like, “It’s OK to have a bad day, but don’t give up. We’re not letting you give up.” And knowing they wanted me to succeed and instead of saying, “OK, We’ll come back tomorrow,” they said, “Take five. We’re going to relax, and then we’re going again.”

Most rewarding?

Accomplishing those little things everyday and knowing that everyone had your back. With everything, they were my cheerleaders. Taking 12 steps instead of 10 or sitting up for an hour instead of a half-hour, those little things were huge, because I knew I was getting better and I knew everyone was rooting for me — and that made every little milestone a million times better.

olivia with parents

“I love the people. They are so much fun,” says Olivia, pictured here with her parents, of why she loves Alabama. “And the food — I love barbecue. And, even though it is 112 degrees, I love the weather. In November I was wearing a skirt and a t-shirt to Thanksgiving — love it!”

How has this experience changed you?

I learned that I’m a lot stronger — mentally, physically, emotionally — than I thought.

And I do look at things a lot differently now; I realize that you can’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t take anything for granted, and I try to take every opportunity and give 100 percent. I’m really grateful to be in this great school and in my sorority and have this great house … It has just made me look at everything differently.

What did you learn about the professionals in the UAB Special Care Unit?

They are amazing people. They are the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. And what I loved is, I needed to know everything, and they didn’t keep me in the dark. I’m this 18-year-old girl, but they didn’t make me feel like a child or some patient who was never going to get better; they treated me like a person who was getting better. That’s why I say they are better than superheroes. They make the Avengers look like normal people — I’m not even kidding. They taught me so much about myself … I appreciate them more than anything.

Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, what have they taught you?

My grandma is my role model. She’s my best friend. I call her about a hundred times a day. She was with me through this whole experience. I truly don’t think that I could have ever done any of it without my grandma. She teaches you how to really appreciate things and be a really great person.

faces of birmingham

“I’m a big ‘Real Housewives’ girl,” says Olivia. “I’m not going to lie: Bravo and I have and emotional connection.”

Shifting gears, what do you like to do for fun?

I love to play with my dog, “Jax” Bryant. I got him the fall that I came back to school. I’m in a sorority, so I love any sorority function, like date parties and swaps. I love game day — Roll Tide! And just hanging out with my friends, watching movies, getting dinner …

What are your must-have style staples?

My school-day staples are my Birkenstocks, my oversized t-shirt and my Nike shorts — that’s every Alabama girl. Do you really go to The University of Alabama if you don’t wear that?

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Any guilty pleasures?

Watching Hallmark movies all day during the December Christmas movies … I will — no joke — be on the phone with my grandma, and we’ll watch about eight in a row, while on the phone. So, that’s a guilty pleasure.

faces of birmingham

“I’m really grateful to be in this great school and in my sorority and have this great house,” says Olivia of her deepened sense of gratitude. “I mean, people now say I’m an ‘old soul,’ so I guess I’m just a lot more aware of things now.”

What is your best piece of advice?

Never give up, no matter what. Even if the odds seem so stacked against you, don’t give up. Because even if what you wanted doesn’t work out in your favor, some other door or opportunity opens. So don’t give up.

Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.

Makeup, New York pizza and Disney — I love Disney.

Thank you, Olivia! And thank you to Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the images of Olivia at UAB.

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