Student says her return to BYU is a miracle after leg paralysis in Brazil

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Monique McDown is back at BYU after suffering an injury on her mission that resulted in paralysis. (Monique McDown)

Monique McDown was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil when a hit-and-run accident left her right leg paralyzed. She said her faith and persistence gave her the strength necessary to walk again.

McDown was born in New Mexico and is the youngest of four kids, but for the past eight years, she has lived in Dallas. McDown said she had always wanted to attend BYU, as all of her family are alumni. She was accepted into the university in 2016, and later that year was accepted into the public relations program.

Near the end of her freshman year, McDown considered going on a mission.

“I wasn’t planning on a mission,” she said. “I loved being at college and absolutely didn’t want to leave, but I had a feeling. If I was going to do it for me, it would be a personal decision. I turned in my papers alone and then told the family when my assignment came. It wasn’t because of pressure or because anyone else wanted me to. It was for me.”

McDown’s mother is from Brazil, which confirmed McDown’s resolve to serve when she received her call to serve in Brazil.

It was about six months into her mission on a warm Sunday afternoon in 2018. McDown had just eaten lunch with her companion, and they had begun to walk down a nearly vacant road.

“I remember looking over and thinking we should move over as much as we can,” she said. “Brazil doesn’t have sidewalks.” 

The pair was on the side of the road when a car revved its engine loudly. According to McDown, the sound was the last thing she remembers. The front left corner of the car came in and hit McDown going 40 miles an hour, splaying her over the vehicle until she finally fell back. 

“I remember looking around; the car stopped. We made eye contact, and he sped off as fast as he could,” she said.

Despite the severity of the crash, McDown was not yet paralyzed. The two women called another member of the church, who didn’t pick up. They looked at each other as they realized they had to find a way to walk home.

“That was the largest miracle,” McDown said. “Even more than the feeling in my leg right now.”

The walk back to their apartment in Brazil wasn’t short. A few months after returning home from the accident, McDown retraced the path where she had limped home for closure. She found the distance they had walked back to their home was actually miles.

“There were angels carrying me home,” she said. “That was the last time I ever walked like that. Once we got back to the house, we saw blood trickling down my leg. It became a reality. The pain started and I went unconscious for an hour and a half. I woke up in a hospital.”

The hospital discharged McDown after just four hours. Luckily, she had broken no bones but the health care providers didn’t know how to diagnose her. McDown only felt numbness in her thigh at first.

McDown continued serving her mission on crutches and a wheelchair for a few days after the incident until her mission president told her she needed to go home.

“Everything felt like it was going to go back to normal,” McDown said. “Until the numbness reached my toes. My leg was cold and purple.” McDown was in contact with U.S. doctors overseas at this time who told her she should go home immediately and that her condition could be life-threatening.

McDown was flown back to the U.S., where she underwent various tests in a Texas hospital.

“This is where they realized my leg was paralyzed,” she said. “It got to the point where the doctors said, ‘There is nothing more we can do,’ and, ‘This is how it’s going to be from now on.’”

There were no developments for a year. Internal bleeding and spine damage had occurred on impact, but the more visible injury was her leg. 

“When I hit my year mark of the accident, there was no progress. I had accepted it and learned to be happy with it,” McDown said. “But in the hospital after the accident, before I knew I was paralyzed, I decided I would not let this trial ruin me. Everyone was trying to be cautious about letting me know my condition. But I decided I would become better through it.” 

Throughout all of her challenges, McDown remained hopeful. “It happened for a reason. If I’m not supposed to be on my mission, then there’s a reason I’m here. I just have to find it. I accepted being paralyzed and had accepted it for the rest of my life. I gained so much joy through this whole experience. I don’t need two working legs when I gained such a strong testimony.”

Many have asked McDown if she regrets going on a mission. To this, she said, “You can only see physically what I’ve lost. I wish people could see my heart and what I’ve gained through this.”

McDown’s friends value her tenacity. A friend and close confidant of McDown’s, Martha Montagnoli said of her, “Monique is the real deal. She is truly lovely inside and out, and her faith and testimony are a powerful inspiration to me. The way she has handled this devastating trial brings me to tears of admiration and love.”

Montagnoli also said McDown does not blame her situation on anyone but walks the higher road, reacting with love.

A little after the year mark of the accident, McDown started feeling some movement in her leg and went to see her doctors.

“At first, they said they were phantom pains,” McDown said. “I thought, ‘Why are you ruining this for me? I’m just going to work as hard as I can, and that’ll prove it’s better.’”

McDown did even more physical therapy and started to develop more strength in her leg and started to successfully move it.

“Not only did it stay,” she said of her success, “but it got a little stronger. It’s just a tiny bit of progress, but it is a world of difference for me.”

McDown began using walking technology after she started regaining feeling in her leg.

“News stations came over wanting to see the miracle,” McDown said. “It’s not negative. I want this to be a happy thing. It’s been pretty positive, and they’ve included stuff about BYU and my church. It’s been really cool. I don’t need my name tag to be doing missionary work.” 

Wonderful things are happening for McDown, and she said her life is definitely changing. She continues to look forward to working in the public relations field and has returned to BYU to finish her degree. Because of her miracle, she’s been asked to speak and share her experience.

“I’ve been hesitant because it’s so personal to me, but I want to be back on my two feet, walking and feeling like Monique McDown again,” she said. “I’m a little bit stubborn, and I’m not going to stop until I start walking again.” 

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