Article by Jody McVeigh
JT Mestdagh doesn’t necessarily consider himself a daredevil.
He just likes to live life to the fullest.
That’s part of the reason he’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and driven the Autobahn, and why he still wants to swim with a whale shark and go helicopter skiing. He likes to set goals for himself; it’s one way he makes sure to make the most of his experiences.
Facing challenges has been a part of Mestdagh’s life since birth. Diagnosed with a life-threatening syndrome called VATER/VACTERL, he endured 250 days in hospitals before age 3 and had 16 major surgeries before age 16. He also has severe dyslexia and short-term memory loss. In fourth grade, he was told he’d be illiterate for life.
“Throughout my life, I’ve had a few challenges that stem from medical to educational that, from birth to now, I deal with day to day,” he said. “It’s a journey, but also a learning experience for me.”
Mestdagh chooses to persevere, stay positive and fight his battles. With help from significant mentors, he not only learned to read and write, but last month published, “Untether: Inspiration for Living Free and Strong No Matter What the Challenge.”
“It’s a memoir of my life and shows all the people who have been mentors and supportive and life-changing for me,” he said. “It’s about perseverance, obstacles and how I overcame them — by surrounding myself with people who helped support me to do that.”
The 23-year-old Grosse Pointe Farms resident said having VATER syndrome helped him overcome the adversity he faced hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“In the last chapter, I highlight that goal of mine — a bucket list item,” he said, “how an adventure with the right people was a success. Even though there were obstacles along the way on that journey alone, I had the backbone to succeed because of previous challenges.
“I want people to know that whatever the challenge is, they can get through it if they put their mind to it and find avenues of help,” he continued. “Find the right people to help you reach your dreams and goals and cures.”
Mestdagh said he’s inspired by people and helping people, as well as by nature and “what God created for us and the ability to see what God’s created,” he said. “I felt I had a story to share. With it, what inspired me was the ability to hopefully impact at least one life. If this book can do that, it will all be worthwhile for me and mean a lot to me.”
Some of the people who inspire Mestdagh are featured in the book, including Steve Tattum, creator of a reading program called LearnUP. It’s the program that helped Mestdagh become literate and change his life.
“It’s been adopted into the Grosse Pointe Public Schools and University Liggett and other local schools,” he said. “Steve comes from Denver. He’s had a huge impact on my life. I had the opportunity to move to his school in Denver, which specializes in dyslexia.
“He was a huge inspiration to write this book,” he continued. “He really thought I needed to share the dyslexia side of things. He became such a good friend and mentor of mine.”
Mestdagh — who graduated from University Liggett School in 2004, and High Point University with a degree in business administration and sales in 2018 — said the book is meant for “anyone with challenges or struggles with education or medical issues, but also for my age group and above — high school to college and beyond.”
Since its release last month, it’s gotten positive feedback and is an international bestseller on Amazon.
A percentage of its proceeds benefit the JT Mestdagh Foundation, a 501(c)3 he founded last summer to support children facing medical and learning challenges.
Mestdagh said he’s available for book signings and speaking engagements for all ages. In the meantime, the full-time marine salesman at Colony Marine in St. Clair Shores plans to enjoy his summer — hopefully embarking on his passion: boating.
“I do a lot of boating with my family,” he said. “I grew up around boats. One thing on my bucket list was getting my 100-ton captain’s license, which I have now. In my industry, it’s something valuable and helpful.”
Establishing a foundation and writing his memoir also have been checked off his bucket list, but he has yet to get his pilot’s license, ski the Alps or learn to surf — among many other goals.
“With my challenges, I realize for me, I’m very fortunate I get to live life very normally,” he said. “There’s a medical procedure I have to do once a day that takes an hour, but other than that, I’m fortunate to be able to do a lot of other things. I can escape my challenges in nature. It’s my happy place. … It’s tranquil to me.
“The daredevil part — I’ve got to live life to the fullest and try new things and learn from them too,” he said. “I’ve done bungee jumping in Africa in Victoria Falls. I hope to go skydiving this summer. Someone told me a long time ago to write down the things I want to accomplish in life. That way, you’re able to see them visually and achieve them. That works for skydiving and bungee jumping, but also in the business world or medically. If it’s something you want to accomplish, that’s a way to achieve that success.”
Apart from a supportive family and friends, Mestdagh finds strength in his faith, which also is captured in “Untether.” The Grosse Pointe Memorial Church member and former Young Life student said faith is a huge aspect of his life.
“God has given me challenges and blessed me with the attitude to learn from them and do something with them,” he said. “He’s gotten me through every one of those challenges. Nature is where I feel closest to God and where I have the opportunity to leave behind different struggles and focus on him and what he’s created for us.”
“Untether” was ghostwritten by Anita Palmer and published by Elite Online Publishing. It’s printed in Dyslexia font, “which helps a person with dyslexia decipher letters a little bit easier,” Mestdagh said.