People pointed at her in the street. “Look, that old woman is pregnant,” they’d snigger.
But Eveleen Crouse (53) from Sydenham, Port Elizabeth, wasn’t carrying a baby in her womb – what was growing inside her was a tumour so huge doctors had no idea how to treat it.
It started out as a small lump on an ovary but for more than four years she watched in horror as her belly swelled and swelled from the tumour which eventually reached the size of eight newborn babies. By this point she was struggling to breathe because the growth was pressing on her lungs.
Her situation looked hopeless. One gynaecologist warned she didn’t have much time left – death was inevitable, he told her.
But fortunately for Eveleen someone who witnessed her ordeal refused to believe nothing could be done.
Meryll van der Merwe, wife of pastor Dion of the Full Gospel Church, spotted Eveleen during a service. “I noticed her because she was so uncomfortable in the pew as a result of her large stomach and she was quite off balance when she walked,” Meryll tells YOU.
“It was painful carrying all that weight around,” Eveleen recalls. “I was crying all the time. My back took strain. I couldn’t cope anymore. ”
She’s shy and speaks softly, almost in a whisper, as she recounts her nightmarish experience. Fortunately Meryll is on hand to take over when things get too much for Eveleen. “I’m her voice,” Meryll says.
For the past 20 years Eveleen has walked a long way, no matter the weather, to attend church. “We have 250 congregants and unfortunately we don’t know everyone’s story,”Meryll says. Eveleen stood out because she was in such bad shape.
And when Meryll discovered Eveleen had been evicted because she could no longer pay rent due to her medical expenses, Meryll made up her mind to do everything in her power to get her the help she so desperately needed.
When Meryll took Eveleen under her wing she’d been living on the street for months. Before that she’d been staying with six other people in a rundown house that didn’t have water or electricity – and for this she paid rent of R1 700 a month.
Eveleen has seen tough times. After her husband, Johan, a hospital porter, died aged 42 of diabetes in 2009, her life became a constant struggle. While he was alive, she’d helped out at an old age home but work became scarce.
To earn money to pay her rent she took care of two elderly people who lived near the derelict house where she stayed, helping with their meals and bathing.
In between she also took care of her son, Charles (36), who’d had a stroke and could no longer walk.
Without her husband’s support, life was a constant battle – but four years ago things started becoming even more difficult when she noticed a soft lump on her stomach.
“There was blood in my urine too,” she recalls.
She went to the local clinic but the doctor there just gave her antibiotics and sent her home. More visits followed but nobody could figure out what to do about her problem.
One doctor just sent her home with paracetamol; another inserted 20 needles in a bid to drain the build-up of fluid, but nothing came out.
“It was excruciating,” Eveleen says.
But Meryll refused to take no for an answer. She contacted hospitals all over the province to try to get help for Eveleen and eventually managed to get her an appointment with a gynaecologist.
The prognosis was dire.
“Make her comfortable until she dies,” was the advice Meryll received. There was nothing they could do for Eveleen – she was too far gone.
“Bring her back when she can’t breathe anymore,” another doctor said.
Meryll found it impossible to heed these words. As a former nurse, she couldn’t bear to watch Eveleen suffer.
“I often cried my heart out,” Meryll says.
Then by pure chance they stumbled across gynaecological oncologist Professor Mfundo Mabenge at Dora Nginza Hospital in Zwide.
For Eveleen he was a lifesaver – an angel in a doctor's coat.
When Mabenge first saw Eveleen her blood pressure was 241/180 and she was in bad shape. But when he looked at her he knew he could operate on her – and that the operation would be a success.
On 21 August she was wheeled into surgery where Mabenge and his team removed the tumour, which weighed an astonishing 27kg, in a two-hour operation. The growth was so large it needed to be wheeled to the lab on a trolley to test it for cancer.
Fortunately it was benign and Mabenge called Meryll to tell her the good news. The tumour didn’t have roots, so it had been simple to remove, he reported.
“You can celebrate now,” he said.
Eveleen had weighed 79kg when she went into the operating theatre but when she was discharged she’d dropped to just 51kg. “I was so happy when I woke up in hospital and felt my flat stomach,” Eveleen says. Tears of joy were flowing freely.
In that moment everything changed for her. People from church helped out with donations of clothes and other necessities and these days she’s living with a fellow congregant.
“It’s so nice to have a place to stay.”
Eveleen is all smiles now. She’s able to walk with ease and she’s sleeping much better. She’s also relieved that she can once again fit into her size three shoes – her feet were so swollen due to the tumour that she wore a size seven.
Mabenge is honoured he could perform her life-changing surgery.
“I’m a religious man and of course I couldn’t turn her away,” he says at his home on a smallholding in Seaview, Port Elizabeth. “She’s also a church person so we clicked immediately. I simply had to help the woman.”
Mabenge is one of three experts in the Eastern Cape on cancers in women and has been based at Dora Nginza Hospital since 2007.
In Eveleen’s case the tumour consisted of abnormal cells floating in pools of mucus and grew as the cells increased over the years, he explains. Amazingly, her tumour isn’t the largest he’s operated on – he removed one weighing 36kg from another female patient.
Mabenge is delighted with the progress Eveleen has made since her surgery. She’s been transformed, he says. “When she walked in, I didn’t recognise her. Her smile unlocked her beauty. It’s also wonderful to see how people in the church are helping her.”
Proof, if ever it was needed, that Good Samaritans do exist.