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“How can we live a life that glorifies God through our suffering?” – Dr. Shanti Mugunen on her journey as a medical doctor living with chronic illness 

Dr. Shanti Mugunen is very familiar with hospitals, but not in the way you’d expect.

“As a toddler, I would be admitted several times a year for asthma. When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D),” the Malaysian doctor said. 

The diagnosis was life-changing for her as a child. At the time, T1D was not common in Asia and general awareness was low.

All Shanti understood was that she needed multiple injections daily and that she could not take sugar for the rest of her life. 

“I felt like this alien, an abnormal, broken person. I was made to feel that what I had was shameful. So I tried my hardest to be normal and perfect,” she said. 

Dr Shanti Mugunen shares her secret to a life of joy amid suffering: holding onto Jesus.

A childhood of secrets and shame 

Needing multiple injections a day to keep her blood sugar levels under control, Shanti drew attention wherever she went. 

“Growing up with low self-esteem, you don’t want pity or negative attention. So I always tried to hide my condition by going to public restrooms (not ideal due to its often unhygienic state) for the injections,” she remembers. 

When out in public, she would not control her diet and even skip injections. 

These resulted in frequent hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic attacks; Shanti would collapse on the floor or experience seizures. 

“I felt so ashamed, being studied like a specimen. So over time, I withdrew into my shell, not leaving the house and refusing to hang out with friends,” she said. 

From patient to doctor

Although she struggled with her health, Shanti did well in school and pursued her dream of becoming a doctor. 

The journey was not easy. She was often seen as an inconvenience due to her own health needs. 

At times, her superiors would refuse to give her time to eat (necessary to keep blood sugar levels stable); she once blacked out on the floor and woke up in a hospital bed two days later.

“I had a lecturer say, “Anyone with a chronic illness shouldn’t be a doctor.” I was in and out of depression many times,” she shared. 

But Shanti kept her focus and successfully obtained her medical licence. 

She was then posted to Kuantan, Pahang for her housemanship and there, she found Jesus. 

Searching for the truth

In Kuantan, a couple who have since become parent figures in her life introduced her to Christianity. 

Shanti had been raised in a different faith and it was the first time she learned about the Cross, His grace and the idea of salvation. 

Flanked by her parents, siblings and spiritual parents (Joel and Ruth), Shanti celebrated finishing her Master’s in Public Health this year.

“There was no dramatic encounter, just a lot of curiosity. I started attending church, listening and learning. Everyone was teaching from the Bible, but how do we know the Bible is true?” she questioned. 

For several years, she studied Christianity as a religion. She needed to be convinced that it was true. 

“Through the years, I started listening to and reading more apologetics, studying the history of the Bible, manuscripts and translations. Through learning, I became convinced that the Bible is legitimate and real, not just a nice story. All talking about the same Jesus Christ,” she said.

In 2017, the questioner within her was satisfied and Shanti finally gave her life to her Saviour. 

More illness and a painful betrayal

Life then entered cruise mode for a while. 

But in 2020, she began experiencing severe pain in her body and found out she had spondyloarthropathy. For a time, her body refused to respond to any treatments. 

“You see your body deteriorating and nothing working. I was not able to work. I went to a very dark place, because the only thing I knew how to do was to be a doctor. But I was in pain 24/7. Sleeping, eating, everything just equaled pain,” she said. 

Her mobility was so affected that walking became too painful and she had to use a wheelchair. 

After being diagnosed with spondyloarthropathy, Shanti had to use a wheelchair for a season.

Too sick to work, Shanti began her Master’s degree in public health, wanting to bridge existing gaps between policy and ground realities in Malaysia’s healthcare system.

Amid her health crisis, Shanti then experienced a heart-wrenching betrayal and subsequent abandonment by someone very close to her in 2022.

Taking hit after hit, a fog of depression settled around her and she struggled to understand the meaning of her life.

“I felt like I’d lost everything, that I was robbed of the life I had. I felt like I had nothing and no one,” she said quietly.

Enveloped by hopelessness, she considered ending her life. 

Receiving healing in her heart

At that time, Shanti could not drive herself to church. But her church community stepped up, taking turns to provide transport every week,

And God surrounded her with people who spoke life, held her hand and walked her through her most difficult season thus far. 

“Whenever I stepped into church, I would be bawling my eyes out. So much was going on inside. But after a time, it began to feel like home and that’s when things began to change on the inside,” she reflected. 

At her lowest, Shanti felt practical love through her connect group.

Fueled by a hunger for God, she began to pursue not His healing, but God Himself. 

“I started to pursue God intentionally, and not focus on just asking for healing or a change in the circumstances I was going through. It started gradually, but then I kept getting hungrier for God, for who He is. I began to see how He has blessed and provided for me, how much I have to be thankful for,” she said with radiant eyes.

Pursuing God changed her life, maintains Shanti. He gave her hope. 

“It’s so difficult to imagine having joy amid so much pain, physical, mental and emotional, but God made it possible,” she said. 

“Healing starts with hope”

According to Shanti, God’s heart is always to heal. However, His healing comes in different forms. 

“It’s not only what’s on your medical report. Healing starts with hope. What changed for me was my perspective, to see God’s hand in everything, to find things to be thankful for,” she declared. 

She challenges believers to let go of the belief that chronic illness means God is not going to heal you, or doesn’t want to heal you. Needing medication or assistance also does not mean God is not healing you.

“I would advise Christians to release that thought and see healing through a much wider, broader point of view. God’s healing comes in many forms. Begin to see what He’s doing in your life, beyond the physical body,” she gently suggests. 

Seeing life with a new lens brought divine joy and peace back into her heart. 

And last year, her body began responding to treatment for her spondyloarthropathy. 

“Oh, the things I’m able to do today! My recent blood results have been amazing; my inflammation levels are the lowest they’ve been in the past three years. Where human skill ends, God is working,” she said.

One night this year, she was in incredible pain but chose to attend her church’s prayer meeting. Within a few minutes, she was out of her wheelchair and dancing. 

These days, the pain has been manageable and now, Shanti has put the wheelchair away. She still uses her mobility aid (single crutch) to get around, but is not as reliant on it as she was before. 

She has also just completed her Master’s degree and is pursuing her PhD in Public Health. 

“Where human skill ends, God is working.” Shanti no longer needs a wheelchair, only using a mobility aid on difficult days.

A life that brings Him glory

“People always ask me, “How do you shine with so much joy?” To go through financial struggles, betrayal, chronic illness and still have joy – the only answer is God. Jesus is my anchor,” Shanti said. 

Letting go of the lie that God doesn’t want to heal has also been freeing, she added.

“When we see God’s healing from a broader point of view, we begin to really see what He is doing in our lives. There is value in everything He allows us to go through.”

From a young girl with low self-esteem, Shanti is learning to see herself through the eyes of her Heavenly Father. 

She now accepts that her life is different from others, but joy and peace can coexist with suffering.

“Nobody wants to suffer, but now that it’s here, how can we live a life that glorifies God through this suffering? What does He want to teach us that can only be learned through pain, loss or grief? I don’t want my life to be a sob story. I want it to be a story that brings Him glory.”

This article was first published on Salt&Light.

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