Spring 2019 Cover Story: Bulletproof

Photo by Emily Adar

Olivia Morrison grew up not knowing what a normal childhood was. From frequent trips to the doctor’s office and incessant testing, there wasn’t a lot she could relate to with her peers.

From a young age, Olivia has battled an ongoing illness. Stomach pains and fainting spells were the hands she had been dealt, and no matter how many times she was poked and prodded, not one doctor could tell her why she was sick.

The Search

Doctors blew off her pains and concerns. Because they weren’t finding concrete answers, they assumed she was a kid who just didn’t want to go to school. Even though it was frustrating to have doctors and even her parents think she was making it up, Olivia could understand their disbelief.

“I feel like that was reasonable, because I was 8 years old,” she says.

Despite the doctors’ predictions, she did not grow out of it. It only got worse. In high school, the illness continued, causing Olivia to weigh a mere 78 pounds at one point.

“I was horrifyingly skinny. I remember if I lied on my back, I could count my ribs.”

Olivia had every test done in the book. They checked her for cancer and spina bifida, and everything had come back negative. They even removed her gallbladder and her appendix.

“I was glad about it because it was two less things for me to worry about,” she recalls. “Everything was shutting down, so I was like if I don’t have to worry about these organs shutting down then at least I know they’re not the problem.”

Stumped, doctors settled on IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), even though Olivia knew this wasn’t what was causing her to be sick. So she was forced to live with a never-ending illness and zero answers.

In 2014, she was finally diagnosed with gastroparesis, which simply put, is paralysis of the digestive organs. Her body was unable to digest food, so her body was essentially starving itself. After receiving this diagnosis, doctors told her there was no cure, and she wouldn’t live past 45 years old.

Photo by Emily Adar

She decided she would just have to pack a lifetime of memories into the short sentence the doctors had given her. From a young age she dreamed of attending Penn State University, and no illness was going to stop her. She packed her belongings and moved to State College in the pursuit of living a somewhat normal life.

At Penn State, she found friends, hobbies and her passion when she picked her major of international studies. She’s always wanted to travel the world and has hopes to create positive communication across countries.

Although she was trying to have a normal college experience, Olivia’s illness was still affecting her in many ways.

People still didn’t believe she was sick. She says people thought she was crazy or just ditching plans when her illness kept her from attending parties and hangouts. No one seemed to believe that her illness was a substantial excuse. No one believed that she was truly sick.

For all my friends to not get it, it was a very isolating,” Olivia says. “So I feel like that led to a lot of depression.

Olivia was further isolated by her anxiety and fear of what her illness was capable of. She says she never knew what was going to happen in public. Would she pass out? Would her legs give out on her? Would something entirely new happen?

“That led to really crazy crowd anxiety that I still really struggle with to this day,” she says. “I have to kind of be like, ‘Oh wait. We don’t have to worry about that anymore.’ I have to talk myself out of it.”

Answers

During her junior year at Penn State, Olivia had a seizure that saved her life.

In the middle of an art class, Olivia was rushed to Mount Nittany Medical Center where an MRI scan revealed the answer Olivia had been searching for her whole life.

There was a tumor in her brain.

A tumor that had caused a lifetime of illness, worrying, pain, anxiety and depression. To most people, a brain tumor would shake their world. To Olivia, she found what she had always been looking for.

Olivia felt that her diagnosis finally gave her a valid excuse. It excused her from everything she had missed out on over the years: parties, hangouts, sporting events. She could finally stop feeling crazy and finally show people the evidence of her lifelong illness.

It was very validating to not only have someone tell me that I had an illness, but that I had what doctors call a sexy illness, an illness that people pay attention to,” Olivia says. “An illness that gets you out of stuff. Because my whole life, I had all the symptoms, but I didn’t have the diagnosis, so nobody would take it easy on me.

At first, doctors refused to operate on her, knowing the risk of surgery. Instead, they wanted to treat her using medication. They prescribed Keppra, a medication used to treat epilepsy. Olivia hated the way it made her feel.

“At this point, my quality of life was so low that I would’ve rather died than keep living like that.”

Olivia decided she had enough. She went to her surgeon and insisted he operate. When he refused, Olivia didn’t take no for an answer.

“He was not going to do it, and I had to cry in his office. I had to bring out the waterworks.”

Finally, he surrendered. Olivia was ecstatic, but she couldn’t say the same for her parents. They tried to talk her out of the surgery, as they knew the risk she faced. But she had the papers in her hand, ready to sign. A week later, she would go into the operating room.

In December of 2017, Olivia went to battle. With a bravery unmatched, she underwent surgery. She woke up a tumor-free person.

In order to remove the tumor, the doctors had to remove four square centimeters of brain matter. But she has never felt more “whole” in her life.

When operating, they had to remove a good chunk of her skull that was too fractured to put back into place. They created a titanium plate that would replace the piece of her skull. Olivia wasn’t just a hero, she was a bionic woman.

“That was kind of one of those details I overlooked ‘cause I was just excited to not have a brain tumor anymore. But I woke up, and they were like, ‘Yeah there’s chainmail in your skull.’”

The piece of titanium runs from the top of her skull to the back of her neck and is her shield in battle. She’s bulletproof.

Photo by Emily Adar

Olivia recalls asking, “Doc, hypothetically, if I got shot in the side of my head, would it bounce off?”

“Yeah, just lead with your head,” the doctor replied.

Olivia had also been seeing a doctor here in State College, and one day, her gastroparesis came up. He was shocked to hear that doctors told her she would die from this disease. He just happened to know a guy who created and performs a corrective surgery. In February of 2018, Olivia had her gastroparesis corrected, and it will no longer threaten her life span.

These few months made Olivia grateful for the people in her life who had stuck by her during her darkest times.

I’m most grateful for my family. I don’t think this was easy for them either,” she says. “My parents were taking me to multiple doctors appointments a week, sometimes in more than one state, and my little sisters were so brave and cheerful for me.

During her time of healing, Olivia turned to artwork as an escape. She digitally reworked a photograph taken of her eyes in the days leading up to her surgery. These eyes are scared and tumultuous but glisten with a glimmer of hope. The “after” photograph features defiant, brave and adventure-seeking eyes. Windows to Olivia’s view of the world.

Life After

After her surgeries, Olivia finally took the reigns of her life. The summer after, she bought a plane ticket and traveled to Greece, Turkey and Germany. She had a lot of adventuring to make up for. She packed years of memories into a three weeklong trip.

Once Olivia came down from her high, she realized she wanted to give back. While she was struggling with both her physical and mental health, Olivia talked to someone through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) here at Penn State. The help she received led her to an idea.

Olivia wanted to be a light to others who were faced with similar circumstances. Her cousin and inspiration, Abbie, has cerebral palsy but has never let it stop her from living. The two of them teamed up and are in the process of creating a foundation called Rita’s Angels, named in honor of their late grandmother, that will pair a physically ill patient with a therapist to guide them mentally while they fight their battle.

This cause is so important to Olivia because when she was sick, no one asked her about her mental health, and she wants to end the stigma that physical health trumps mental health.

“Not everybody’s insurance even covers that kind of thing. And that’s crazy to me because people die from mental illness, just like they die from any other illness,” she says.

Olivia wants those struggling to know that there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.

“I just really wanted to give everybody an ‘It’s going to be OK’ from somebody who really knows that it’s going to be okay.”

To Olivia, “healing isn’t linear,” because she says there are still days when she faces struggles and leftover symptoms. She stresses that people facing mental and physical illnesses must show themselves patience in their process of healing.

One remarkable thing about Olivia is how graceful she handles her illness. She exudes hope, positivity and liveliness, though her life has been far from unblemished.

Olivia isn’t perfectly healthy or healed, and she isn’t asking to be. She embraces every trip to the doctor, every surgery, and every “brain damage quirk,” as she puts it.

She has seen the world for what it is through unclouded eyes. But the hardships she has seen haven’t stopped her from living a full life. The world was dark and scary at times, but it never kept her from living.

She takes risks because she is fearless. She adventures because she has always longed to see the world. She lives fully because to Olivia, life isn’t worth living if you aren’t really living.

All the worries, fear, illnesses and pain just ricochet, because Olivia is made of titanium. She’s bulletproof.