Posted on December 23, 2020

Encouraged by heartfelt support, Olivia and Alex ‘fight to beat this together’

Olivia Ancil’s story of recovery is about faith over fear and perseverance over pain. It’s also one of hope and the undeniable power of love.

On May 28, the young nurse was leaving a specialty certification class at Holland Hospital to spend time with her boyfriend, Alex Arent. Just 22 and a recent graduate of Cedarville University in Ohio, she’d landed her dream job as a registered nurse at her hometown hospital. Life was sweet.

“Alex and I were walking on the sidewalk,” she said. “Then everything changed.”

A car veered off the road and onto the sidewalk, striking Olivia and Alex. When first responders arrived at the scene, Olivia was unresponsive. With injuries deemed life-threatening, she was flown by Aeromed to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. Alex, who also was seriously injured, was taken by ambulance.

Olivia underwent emergency surgery and spent the next five days in intensive care, fighting for her life. She sustained a traumatic brain injury, internal injuries and multiple fractures that spanned the length of her body. Impact from the crash also affected her vision.

“I have plates, rods and screws in both of my legs, my spine and my mandible as well as scars from staples and stitches,” she said. “It’s been a journey, and it’s only begun.”

‘Miraculous’ recovery

After five days in the acute-care hospital, Olivia came to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital to begin intensive therapy.

“Her story is quite miraculous, just how much she’s been able to recover,” said Sean Murphy, a physical therapist on the Brain Injury Program team. “She’s an incredibly hardworking young woman … the pain was overwhelming. But she was motivated to get back on her feet.”

Despite that motivation, the severity of Olivia’s injuries raised questions about the extent of her recovery, including her ability to walk again.

“She really relied on her faith to get her through it – she gave it everything,” Sean said. “Her goal was to walk out of here, and there were times when it didn’t look like that would happen.”

But she persisted. Her days were filled with hours of physical therapy to improve function and mobility, occupational therapy to gain independence with everyday activities and speech-language therapy for cognition, communication and swallowing. She also had recreational therapy, including sessions with music therapist Peter Muszkiewicz. After learning Olivia played the ukulele, Peter showed up at their first meeting with one. And she played.

“That was just really special,” Peter said. “Out of all of the things that she couldn’t do yet, this was something she could.”

Sources of support

The 73 days Olivia spent at Mary Free Bed were fraught with incredible highs each time a goal was reached and the lowest of lows, when her pain was exhausting and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from seeing many loved ones in person. She found support in heartfelt messages from family and friends and relied heavily on her faith.

After he was discharged from the hospital, Alex also came to Mary Free Bed for rehabilitation. While working to recover from his own injuries, Alex was a mainstay not only for Olivia but also for her mother, Rebecca.

“His first words when he saw Olivia were ‘You are so beautiful,’” she said. “He was an encouragement to me because of his love for Liv and their fight to beat this together.”

Alex and Olivia participated in their individual therapy sessions, and Alex also spent time observing and encouraging Olivia during hers. After therapy ended for the day, they were inseparable, traveling the hallways together in their wheelchairs and visiting outside on the terrace. Sometimes, he just held her hand, providing a calming force.

“He’s been solid as a rock through it all,” Olivia said.

When Alex graduated from Mary Free Bed on June 10, they transitioned to daily video calls, keeping posted on each other’s progress and praying together. Olivia spent the following weeks fighting to recover in the face of an unknown future. Therapy continued, mixed with visits to see specialty physicians and surgery to remove the wires in her jaw. Fueled by her faith, Olivia remained steadfast during the incremental recovery.

“I truly think my whole recovery would have looked so different without Mary Free Bed, without my therapists, my nurses, my doctors … each person made a difference,” Olivia said. “I’m just so thankful.”

Facing the future

Olivia and Alex wedding day photo
Courtesy/On The Heights Photography

Olivia graduated Aug. 14 and headed home to a parade of well-wishers lining the street.

“The thing I rested on the most was, although the situation was not good, God was still good,” Olivia said. “I was constantly encouraged by so much support and love from people at home, from the staff at Mary Free Bed. I was blown away.”

She’s continuing outpatient therapy through Holland Hospital and has extensive follow-up care with several specialists. While she’s well on her way, Olivia’s recovery is far from over. She’ll face it with Alex.

One of the things he worked on during his rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed? How to get down on one knee.

Alex proposed on Sept. 5, and they were married Dec. 3.

Sean was there.

“Alex and Olivia invited me and my wife so that I could watch Olivia meet another one of her goals,” he said. “She looked stunning walking down the aisle, without an assistive device, to marry Alex. It was a beautiful wedding, and I was incredibly honored that they wanted me to be part of it.”