Paying it forward: Fonville finds purpose in health diagnosis

School of Nursing student Emily Fonville quickly learned the UAB family is committed to helping each other achieve their purpose after her longtime health issues challenged her education.
Written by: Pareasa Rahimi
Media contact: Micah Hardge

University of Alabama at BirminghamInside EFPhotography: UAB School of Nursing School of Nursing student Emily Fonville’s path to becoming a nurse has not been without its challenges. Diagnosed with a severe case of Type 1 diabetes in 2015, Fonville has been hospitalized 37 times since then.

While her complicated health history has tested her in numerous ways, it was through her treatment and health care experiences that she found her calling and UAB.

Purpose in the pain

Soon after Fonville began her sophomore year of high school in 2015, what started as chest pains progressively turned into flu-like symptoms, exhaustion and shortness of breath that continued to worsen. Despite several doctor appointments, there was uncertainty around her health.

“It went on for months,” Fonville said. “It got to the point where I had to be moved downstairs into my mom’s room because I could no longer go up the stairs.”

Fonville’s symptoms persisted until she passed out during a doctor’s visit in December 2015. She was transported to a hospital in Memphis, where she went into a coma and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Due to the severity of her condition, her chances of surviving were extremely low.

Once awake, Fonville had to relearn how to live. Because of her autoimmune disease, she is more vulnerable to illnesses, which sometimes result in hospitalizations that can last for days to weeks at a time. Since her diagnosis, she has had 37 hospital visits.

The care Fonville’s nurses gave her during her hospital stay did not go unnoticed. From talking to her as they would to a normal 15-year-old, to taking time out of their day to brush her hair, the warmth and compassion they showed her inspired her to follow in their footsteps and become a nurse herself.

“My nurses were incredible and were truly the lights of my life during those times,” Fonville said. “I knew from that day on I had to find a purpose from what happened to me, and I found that I was meant to become a nurse and be like the nurses I had.”

The UAB School of Nursing’s Undergraduate Nursing landed in the top 10 programs for the third year in a row and climbed two spots from last year, ranking No. 7 of 656 programs in the country, and is the top school in Alabama, according to U.S. News & World Report. Learn more about starting your journey to a nursing degree here.

What it means to be a Blazer               

Fonville’s research on the best nursing schools in the country led her to UAB. After a campus tour visit with her mom, she knew it was where she would be headed next to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing.

Fonville loved UAB immediately and appreciated that she did not feel fenced in or stuck in one place.

“I felt like this was somewhere I could grow not just as a student in life but as an individual being out on my own for the first time,” Fonville said. “I fell in love with the School of Nursing, and I’ve never looked back.”

In August 2022, two weeks into her first semester of nursing school, Fonville was hospitalized in UAB Hospital’s Medical Intensive Care Unit for two weeks after experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“Once again, the nurses I had in the MICU were incredible,” Fonville said. “They provided the best care that I could have asked for, that my mom could ask for, that anyone would want for a loved one.”

Inside 2 efPhotography: UAB School of NursingDespite her hospitalization’s causing her to fall behind in school, Fonville was determined to get back on track and not let anything get in the way of becoming a nurse. Not realizing how many of her fellow Blazers she had in her corner, Fonville was caught up within just a few weeks of returning to school thanks to the support of School of Nursing faculty, staff and her cohort.

“I would not be here today if it weren’t for most of my cohort, who made sure I was good, offering to help send notes and even meet with me to go over what I missed,” Fonville said.

Upon graduating this spring, Fonville will begin working in the UAB Emergency Department. Her goal is to be a flight nurse, and she would like to go back to school to become a nurse practitioner. UAB showed Fonville that anything is possible when it comes to nursing.

“It was hard to get here, and there have been plenty of days when I’ve struggled with not feeling well or having a bad day; but every single time I step into this building, there are people who have my back and there are professors who want to see me succeed,” Fonville said. “It’s incredibly special to say I’m graduating from the UAB School of Nursing and that I’m going to work at UAB. I just can’t wait.”