by Joan Birsh

Did You Know… that Legacy Member JT Mestdagh is the author of Untether, a memoir that is a best seller at Amazon Books.

I met JT Mestdagh last year when he was at Ocean Reef visiting his grandparents Marlene and John Boll. He appeared to be an attractive, well mannered, outgoing 23-year-old. His cheerful demeanor made me question what could possibly have inspired such a young person to write a deeply personal and highly praised memoir.

Then one afternoon not long ago, I picked up my previously purchased copy of Untether. Admittedly, I planned to skim it, but instead I read, and in some cases reread, every word of the 323-page paperback.

The saga of Untether is presented entirely in JT’s own words and his description of his birth defects and the medical procedures to correct them is unsparing.

Shortly after delivery, the doctor informed JT’s parents that their newborn son had to have an immediate operation on his esophagus, which was non-existent and food could not go into his stomach. Also required was another complicated surgical procedure for a condition called anal atresia, which required rerouting the colon so body waste could come out of artificial openings in the stomach and into a colostomy bag.

Later the Mestdagh’s were to learn that JT had something called Vater Syndrome, not a disease, but a rare (1 in 10,000 to 40,000 newborns) collection of birth defects, whose cause is unknown. Vater is an acronym that refers to the five different areas in which a child may have abnormalities – vertebrae, anus, trachea, esophagus, renal (kidneys). Before the age of three, JT spent 250 days in hospitals and by the time he was a teenager, he had undergone 16 major surgeries.

In spite of periods of unbelievable pain, humiliation and disappointment, JT is never whiny or self-pitying. Instead he is upbeat, optimistic and grateful to his doctors, nurses, caretakers and most of all to his loving family. And, indeed, in addition to the indominable leading role in this real-life human drama, the supporting cast of heroes includes JT’s parents Kris and Jim Mestdagh and his two sets of grandparents Ruthie and Bill Mestdagh and Marlene and John Boll. They were beside JT throughout every crisis (several of them life-threatening), always encouraged him to reach his goals, and never stopped praying for him. For JT and all of his family, their enduring faith in God was a major source of hope and consolation.

“It wasn’t all pain and mess and frustration,” says JT in a passage that generously reassures his readers. “When I was four months old, we spent my first Christmas at my Papi’s and Nani’s (Boll) home in Colorado. And in February we traveled to Florida to spend time with them on their boat, where I had my first-ever swim in a pool. “

JT’s young life was punctuated by surgeries, infections, intestinal procedures that he frequently found painful and sometimes embarrassing. And yet throughout it all, there were always understanding playmates, tireless tutors, and mentors like his ski instructor, who not only taught him to be an excellent skier but, fostered his continuing love of the outdoors.

Marlene and John Boll with grandson and Untether author JT Mestdagh.

JT managed to overcome every physical obstacle (including two delicate operations to correct a tethered spinal cord). To the amazement of his nurses, he would wake up in the hospital smiling and joking. They nicknamed him “JesTer”.

Then when he was 11 years old, he came close to being defeated by his rapidly progressing loss of short-term memory and severe dyslexia.

JT had struggled through lower school in his special ed class at the prestigious University Liggett school in Grosse Pointe, MI. Then one day near the end of his fifth-grade year, the Head Master stopped him in the hall and without any preamble announced – “JT, I need to let you know that you’re not reading or writing well enough for you to stay at Liggett for Middle School. You can’t come here next year.”

The next day the Mestdagh’s were summoned to a meeting and told by the Grosse Pointe School District psychologist that she had evaluated all of their son’s tests and that it was her conclusion that “JT is illiterate and always will be. He will never learn to read.”

“JT will learn to read,” promised Jim Mestdagh. “We will find a way to help him learn to read.”

Not an easy promise to fulfill. In previous years, JT had shown no improvement in spite of exposure to the most respected dyslexia programs, numerous sessions with trained tutors and countless hours of coaching by both his parents.

Then through the recommendation of an old friend, they found Stephen D. Tattum, a little-known learning innovator, whose reading system called F.A.S.T. relied on phonetics and confidence building. JT bonded immediately with Steve and the family became optimistic that this process was going to work. Tattum encouraged the Mestdagh’s to enroll JT for a semester in his Denver Academy. It was a tough decision but eventually Kris and JT moved to Colorado and Jim visited most weekends.

In only five months, working with the F.A.S.T. teachers at the Denver Academy, JT went from reading at the kindergarten level to close to the level of most fifth graders.

For the remainder of his middle school years, JT was home-schooled with a qualified teacher. His hard work paid off and he was accepted (even welcomed) into the 9th grade class back at Liggett. On Sunday, June 8, 2014, he defied all their early predictions and graduated Cum Laude from the school that had asked him not to return because he “always will be illiterate.”

College was going to be the next challenge. High Point University, a 90-year-old liberal arts institution in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina, was on JT’s list of visits to potential colleges. And for him it proved to be love at first sight. After a short look around and an impromptu encounter with Dr. Nido R. Qubein, the University President, JT whispered to his parents – “I’m going here.”

It was an excellent choice. In his four years at High Point University, JT continued to disprove that early despairing assessment of his capabilities.

HPU does not use the term “special education”. At High Point, the impressive program of support and accommodation for students with disabilities is called “Learning Excellence.” JT was able to use Audible books. He was granted extended time for taking tests. His final exams were held in a soundproof room with software that reads the questions out loud and permits the student to dictate the answers into the computer. It was still hard work, but for JT the program made his academic success possible.

On May 5, 2018, JT Mestdagh graduated from High Point University with a final GPA of 3.21. NOTE: At the conclusion of every graduation ceremony at High Point, a bald eagle, the symbol of freedom and strength, is untethered to fly over the graduation class – an event that surely had special meaning for JT.

The Epilogue. The last section of Untether relates JT’s riveting account of the fulfillment of his lifetime wish to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The grueling physical trials presented by that epic journey are further proof that this young man is up for almost any challenge. Why did he do it? His answer – “Mountains are for climbing. In other words, slow steady steps over any hurdle you face will bring you victory.”