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Out Of The Rough

UVU golfer, MBA student Monica Yeates uses strength, spirit to overcome illness

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by Jay Drowns

It was not the kind of present that Monica Yeates would have picked for her 21st birthday. It certainly wasn’t the typical wish that accompanies the blowing out of candles and awkward singing by family members. 

Instead, the UVU student and member of the Wolverine women’s golf team was in a doctor’s office in the Mayo Clinic in 2016, learning that she was inflicted with neuromyelitis optica, or NMO, a rare autoimmune disease that often leaves victims blind and wheelchair-bound. 

While it may sound like a depressing birthday gift, Yeates decided to take a different approach. 

I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I feel confident that things are going to work out the way they are supposed to,’” she remembers. “I know now there are people who have this disease who are doing really well. Obviously there are some who aren’t doing well, but there was that hope that I will be one of those who would do well.”

It’s that optimism that inspired Yeates’ mentor, UVU women’s golf coach Sue Nyhus, to nominate Yeates for the 2017 Women’s Golf Coaches Association Kim Moore Spirit Award. The award, designed to highlight the nation’s top example of sportsmanship and inspiration to golfers, was announced in May, with a special tribute to Yeates broadcast on the Golf Channel, as part of its NCAA Women’s Golf Championship coverage. 

Yeates says she had “no idea about the award” until Nyhus tipped her off at an end-of-the-year awards banquet with UVU Athletics. “It was the day of my graduation,” Yeates recalls. “She was like, ‘I’ve got some big news for you. You won this national award and you’re going to be recognized on the Golf Channel.’ Yeah, it was my coach that did it all.”

The award is named after Kim Moore, who played for the University of Indianapolis and persevered through many physical challenges to be a positive example to her teammates. The purpose of continuing the award by golf coaches nationally is to honor a student-athlete who exemplifies a great spirit toward the game of golf and is a role model for her team in facing challenges. 

Face them, Yeates did indeed.

It began in May of 2015 when she noticed an area of sensitivity on the right side of her abdomen. Yeates says she could “feel her clothes touching her body there” and it felt painful and strange. She says she just “lived through it” and then began to suffer significant back pain, “where any time I would sit or lie down, it was painful.” She avoided sitting or lying down because of the pain, described as “a significant soreness, almost a throbbing.”

“Then one day I was on the course — we were playing 18, and partway through I started dragging my feet,” she says. “My feet and legs felt weaker than normal. I thought, ‘This is weird.’ And we decided to cut our round short and I was grateful for that. Over the next couple of days, my legs just started to feel like Jell-O and I was losing feeling and there was increasing feelings of numbness.”

That numbness, she says, started spreading, affecting her midsection: “One night I couldn’t go to the bathroom — I had no feeling or sensation and I was wobbly and from there I ended up going to the ER and that is when it all began.

“I was then hospitalized. I got super-numb from my chest down and couldn’t walk while I was in there, holding on to people’s arms on both sides to get around anywhere. While I was there, I did test after test after test, and they kept coming back as inconclusive.”

Yeates says those four days suggested to her mind that she might have something she would have to deal with the rest of her life, while she says she was also “hoping for something that they could fix, make me better and get back to normal living. After being there for four days, they discharged me and basically said, ‘Good luck. We don’t know what it is. Hope it gets better.’”

Teammate Carly Dehlin remembers feeling equally baffled about Yeates’s condition and what to do to help.

It was super-difficult, because we didn't know exactly how we could help,” Dehlin says. “Monica didn't know what was wrong at first, so it made it hard for everyone to understand what was happening and what this meant for Monica. All we really could do was let her know we were thinking about her and supporting her throughout her challenges.”

The initial hospital stay was followed by months of physical therapy. Yeates admits that she was extremely weak as she strived with a therapist to get sensation and strength back in her extremities. Looking back, Yeates describes herself as “a frail, fragile, old grandma, because that is essentially what I was.”

“I’m so grateful that God has a timing for things,” Yeates says, “because all this was a month after I had finished my semester, about a month after I had finished the WAC tournament, so it gave me time to recover because it happened at the beginning of summer. I was taking only one class at the time. That was nice.”

Yeates says she started making incremental improvement, gaining strength and “retraining my mind to be able to do basic things, like walking.” She said it took about five months before she could run again. Thanks to near-continuous work with her physical therapist, things were looking up. 

“I was starting to get back to where I wanted to be, had just played my first 18 holes of golf with my team,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘I am going to be able to do this with my team.’ And I had played really well that day, and I couldn’t believe it, with everything that happened. It was right then that all of a sudden I had a spot in my vision. I didn’t think that it correlated with the other stuff, but it didn’t go away, and over the course of about a week, I was looking through a cloud in my left eye.

“That was scary, more scary for me —losing my vision—because at least I could see before.”

Research her father had done on Yeates’s medical condition led him at this point to review a lab result and he noticed a level, a marker for NMO, which should have been 5 or below, but was noted to be 80 in Monica’s most recent test. It was worked out with insurance providers to get Yeates to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she received her diagnosis. 

“It was on my birthday that I got the official diagnosis, so I will always be able to remember when I was diagnosed — makes it easy for me,” she says. “The neurologist I met with there was very optimistic, a lot more optimistic than I initially was when I was hospitalized and no one knew what it was, and I was being told it might be multiple sclerosis and all of that.”

Again, her teammates were at her side and watching Yeates as she worked to improve. 

Dehlin, who was with Yeates the first day she began feeling numbness in her legs, said, “The fact that Monica worked hard enough to be able to compete again as a college golfer is incredible. She completely beat the odds and came back stronger than before. She never complained about being in pain and continually worked hard to regain her strength.”

Yeates was told there are about 4,000 people in the United States currently diagnosed with NMO. No one knows the “why” of the disease, she says, but the problems do seem to center on what are known as B cells. Yeates has infusion treatments twice every six months. She says there are currently 14 other patients who come to a specialized infusion center in Salt Lake City to receive similar treatments for NMO. 

“The infusion takes about six to seven hours,” she explains. “It really depletes my B cells and for about a week I take things super easy. When I work myself too much after the infusion, I feel super-sick, so I’ve learned to take it easy for a week.”

While monitoring her health and getting stronger each week, Yeates found herself hit with another personal challenge. While experiencing a zip line tour at a nearby mountain resort with several members of her extended family, an aunt, visiting from out of state, was tragically killed when a large tree branch broke and fell into her path while experiencing the downward trek of the zip line. Yeates accompanied her uncle to the emergency room of the local hospital and says she still feels the pain of that day. 

“Really hard to deal with, hard to deal with seeing everyone else in so much pain,” she says, “seeing my uncle phone all his kids. Hard to see everyone suffer so much.”

Through all of these unusual circumstances, Nyhus says she has seen “strength, enthusiasm, and positive attitude” expressed by Yeates. “The new term of ‘grit’ says it all for me. Monica's optimistic perseverance makes all the difference.”

“I am honored to know Monica Yeates,” Nyhus said in May, when the award was announced. “She has handled many challenges with honor, dignity, and great poise. She has remained positive about herself and others, and for that I am so very proud of her.”

Dehlin: “She inspires everyone that, no matter what challenges or difficulties you are going through, there is always something positive to take away from the experience. Monica always looks for the positives in everything she is going through and always is building others up.”

Dehlin and Yeates are both currently in the UVU Masters of Business Administration program at the Orem campus. Yeates, who will graduate in May with an emphasis in management, is currently evaluating internship opportunities and hopes to have something lined up by the time she graduates. She says she hopes to stay in Utah to allow for medical follow-up and support from her family. Plus, she wants to follow her younger brother, a freshman, who was just named to the UVU men’s golf team.

Yeates remembers considering the concept of being an inspiration to others when she saw an award given at a UVU Athletics banquet early in her golf team experience. 

“It’s kind of interesting that at the end of my sophomore year, right before things started to take a downturn … I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t care what kind of award I might receive from my career here, but I hope I’m having a positive impact on people; I hope I am an inspiration to someone,’” Yeates says. “I have met people who curse God — they’ll be upset about their trials, and just have that as an excuse not to live life to its fullest. I decided I wanted to be happy and do my best and hopefully change someone’s life.”