Coming Out of the Shadows

Abby Mauwong’s faith helped her survive a terrifying illness



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Shortly after a seven-hour surgery, 38-year-old Abby Mauwong awoke slowly to the cries of a patient down the hall. Though dazed, she realized the man was in terrible distress. The young mother was recovering in the critical care unit at St. Edward Mercy Medical Center, where many patients aren’t expected to live. Abby wasn’t in top form herself, yet she sat straight up and did what she loves best, encouraging others through scripture. Abby raised both hands, pulling slender IV tubes along with her, and quoted from the book of John.

Her husband, Salefu, turned to Abby’s mother, and said joyfully, “She’s back!”

Abby’s surgery took place the day after Mother’s Day, 2011. She had been so ill before the holiday that she lay in bed, barely able to tolerate the pressure that made her feel as if her head would explode. She hardly spoke and couldn’t even cry out. Any movement would bring throbbing pain.

But following her surgery, Abby has been on her way back to health. Since her medical miracle, she has savored every moment spent with family. “Each day is a present to open. I don’t want to miss anything.”

 

Periods of Darkness

For some, a serious illness might serve as a first awakening. But Abby has always lived with conviction and purpose. A strong Christian, she made her first mission trips to England and South Africa at age 13. As a young woman, she learned to speak six languages, excelled academically at Louisiana Tech, and pursued a career as a missionary. Yet a shadow would periodically fall across her path, diminishing her ability to fully live.

“My medical story would make a great Hallmark special,” says the Bartlett mother of three. “But a television movie wraps up in an hour.” Abby’s struggle to learn what caused her periods of darkness lasted much longer — 20 years, in fact.

She had always been a healthy child, but during her teen years, there was a shift. She loved to cheer for her school team, but had to fight bouts of dizziness and lethargy. Sometimes she had fainting spells. Other times, she would feel so weak she couldn’t lift her hand. Abby’s symptoms eventually led her to a number of doctors; a neurologist who misdiagnosed her condition as epilepsy, a physician who told her she was merely seeking attention. She even met with mental health counselors. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” says Abby, who began to wonder herself.

Still, her life was shaping up to be one she had dreamed of. She met her husband, Salefu, a Samoan from New Zealand, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Both volunteered to work security during the games, along with 2,000 other missionaries. They followed the rules while on the clock, but once their shifts ended, they shared the Gospel with the crowd.

The couple later started a family that grew to include Ruth (now 13), Kabod (10), and Anna (8). During her years as a newlywed and young mother, her symptoms came and went. But because her body was so unpredictable, she found herself being a “hypervigilant” mother, one who often tried to control everything.

Then in February 2011, the shadow grew darker.

“I started having stutters in my brain when I couldn’t recall the day or where I was going. How could I feel drunk as a sailor when I drank only iced tea?” she wondered.

The intermittent episodes could last 10 minutes or several hours. Her body’s inconsistency was maddening. Friends started driving her children to school, and her sister helped care for her family. Her husband, clinically depressed for 10 years, had weaned from his medication “and was climbing up the hill himself.”

Despite numerous MRIs, doctors still had no answers. Wondering if she might have vertigo, Abby scheduled a work-up with Dr. Glen Blake Williams, an ear, nose, and throat doctor in March. One symptom caught his attention. When Abby took a deep breath, she felt a sharp pain in her head and blacked out. Thoroughly studying her records, Williams made a startling discovery. “I know what this is,” he told her confidently. “What?” replied Abby, “You must tell me now.” Williams looked at her steadily before announcing, “I think your brain is falling out of your head.”

 

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