In this interview with Jack Krasula, host of Anything Is Possible, JT Mestdagh dives into his challenges, how he overcame them, the importance of family and mentors, and shares insightful and faith-centered stories from his book, Untethered.
Jack Krasula: It starts with you! Our guest this week was born with VATER and spent 250 days in the hospital by the time he was three years old. He’s endured 16 major surgeries, has severe dyslexia and is a graduate of High Point University. Today he’s an extreme snow skier, a mountain climber, a boater, a hunter, a fisherman, and an author. He’s also a motivational speaker, and his basic message is faith and attitude is everything. His name is JT Mestdagh. And I’m Jack Krasula. And this is Anything Is Possible on Newstalk 760 WJR.
Hi, I’m Jack Krasula. This is Anything Is Possible. And we’re talking to a fascinating young man, JT Mestdagh, whose autobiography is entitled, Untethered.
JT, you’re 23 years old, you’ve already got a book written. Amazing. Welcome.
JT Mestdagh: Thank you, Mr. Krasula.
Can we start by you offering an opening prayer, please?
I’d love to.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing us here today to be able to spend this time to spread your word and just for us to have this time to talk and talk about how you have impacted my life and many other lives, through me and brought both of us here today. And just thank you for everything that you do for us. And thanks for everything today.
Terrific. God’s blessed you in a lot of ways. He’s severely blessed you in other ways, but two of your biggest blessings are your mom and dad. Tell us about your mom and dad.
Yes. My mom and dad, throughout my life have just been amazing role models and amazing every step of the way, guiding me and giving me the ability to become who I’ve become an end. Thanks to them—as we’ll get into a lot of my challenges throughout my life—they have been the sole reason for me to be successful and with them and the Lord and teaching me so much. Emphasizing how important the Lord is to me and to my life has been the amazing part of who they are to me.
And Mom sitting in as we have the show.
In the first three years of your life, you spent 250 days in the hospital. Paint for us, JT, a picture of the first three years of your life.
The first three years of my life were a journey. VATER syndrome has been a challenge from birth. Those first three years were very challenging with lots of time in the hospital. Thanks to the doctors, I was able to be here today. Those surgeries started with basically my whole plumbing system. So from my esophagus all the way down to my anus and those were life-threatening. I was born without an esophagus, I was born without an anus, and I was born with no peristaltic muscles from the esophagus all the way down. So that doesn’t allow for me to eat properly or to digest properly. My whole system was messed up. Thanks to amazing doctors and amazing people in my life, they were able to put my system back together. At birth, I was born with a colostomy, and it was from there we had what they call the reversal of the call lost to me and from there, many other surgeries that involve the intestines and things down there.
We talked about your mom and dad being angels for you. What’s the biggest thing you learned from Mom, JT? And what’s the biggest thing you learned from Dad?
I’d say the biggest thing that I learned from my mom is definitely her being the angel of my life and really being there for me every step of the way, guiding me through all the medical things. When it comes to my father, he really is an inspiration to me and he’s been the coach for me throughout my whole life, whether it was medical or whether it was other parts that I struggled with or whether it was just having fun and making sure that I got out there and enjoyed my time. You know, playing sports, skiing, biking, lacrosse, and many other sports that I participated in throughout my life. He was my rock and definitely my coach.
Two other rock stars in your life have been John and Marlene Bowl.
Yes, my grandparents have been a huge part of my life. Both sets of my grandparents have been there for me every step of the way. And when it came to medical, being there for my parents. It’s amazing what my parents have done for me. I think that my grandparents have really been the support for them and really helped them through challenging times as well.
God also severely blessed you with severe dyslexia.
Yes, I look at all these different challenges as a blessing. Dyslexia was a blessing in disguise because of how many things that came of it and the people that He brought into my life with it. I was born with dyslexia, and with the medical challenges, we really did not have that as a priority in our life. As I advanced in school, we started to realize how big of a challenge that dyslexia was for me. I can remember specifically coming home one day and laying on the floor in our kitchen, and my mom was there and I was pounding on the floor and crying and just saying to my mom, “I don’t care about the medical, I want to learn how to read!” This is when my mom knew that we had to really take this as a priority. Thanks to her we have spent a lot of time researching and finding different things and trying many programs throughout the Detroit area and in national programs. With dyslexia comes short-term memory loss and lots of other challenges. It’s not just what people think of the reverse of letters and things. There’s a lot of different parts to it.
JT, what’s daily life like for someone who has severe dyslexia?
Yes, so for my daily life, when it comes to dyslexia, when I was growing up, I was at a point where I didn’t even want to go to a friend’s house or go out to dinner with family. We basically eliminated me from doing certain things that a normal child can do and the reason for that is because you go to a friend’s house, and you pull up a computer screen or a video game, and you have to read that one line and figure out what button to push or what to do. I didn’t have that capability of reading. And when it comes to a restaurant, I remember my famous line was, “I’ll have a cheeseburger”, because every restaurant has a cheeseburger. It was a challenge to be a normal kid at times. With my medical background too, that was challenging. Because, for me, one day, I could read the word, man for men’s restroom, and the next day, I wouldn’t be able to. It was quite a challenge to navigate. As my grandpa always said, JT is living in a foreign country basically. And that’s a great way to describe someone with dyslexia.
Well, in 2006, you became a citizen, because of an angel that God sent you by the name of Steve Tattum.
Yes, Steve Tattum was definitely one of my angels in my life. He came to us, it was a God thing. The Kennedy family had mentioned to us that Steve Tattum was in town and that we had to meet him. And so we actually spent the time and going to the other side of town and we spent time with Steve. In this first encounter with Steve, for me it was this was going to be like every other reading program, sitting down and pulling out a flip book that you couldn’t see what’s on the back side. But their response was always good as you read through the things, and you knew that you weren’t getting some right. But Steve looked at me, and I remember him saying, “JT, you’ll never have to see this again. We’re going to move on. This was just me testing you and seeing where you’re at.”
We moved on from there and dove into Steve’s program, which is known as the FAST Reading program. Steve, pulled out this magnetic board that was basically the program with a whole bunch of letters on it all organized in different ways that helped a visual learner. And it was a program that was built for me and really helped me and many others throughout this community and across the country.
And Steve Tattum met a lady named Pam Good, who was running Beyond Basics. She embraced that program, and now thousands and thousands of inner city kids have learned to read because of Beyond Basics and FAST Reading.
Yes, and thanks to Pam and all of her help with being so influential and helping so many kids. And with Steve’s ability to pick up and move his program and teach thousands of teachers and impact thousands of students in the greater Detroit area, it’s become a great team and the great work together. Steve has a great ability to teach is really an awesome person for the teachers to be working with, as well as students.
Your whole life, thousands of people have told you, you won’t be able to do this, you won’t be able to do that. You can’t do this. When people told you that, what did you think? What did you do?
Whenever someone throughout my life said you won’t be able to do this or that, and I think that with my positive attitude and my willingness to try anything and try to find something that works for me, I never allowed those things to shut me down. I think the most important thing for anyone is that they go out and try different things and do the research to find something that will help them or will allow them to accomplish their goals. Accomplishing your goals is one of the most important things. Throughout my life, I’ve had many mentors, and these mentors stem from the medical side of things to the dyslexic to just plain old having fun. You have to have people in your life that can support you and help make you become who you want to become.
I quote you now, “Limits are for credit cards, not for people.”
I think one big thing with that is you can’t set a limit, you have to always shoot for the stars and try to try to reach your highest goal. Whether that’s climbing a mountain, whether that’s learning to read, spend more time with your family, it’s really important that you put your best foot forward in everything you do. One thing that I’ve learned in the hardest of times, my biggest mentor and people in my life that pushed me to obtain a goal, as you know, they’re always there for you to push you there.
I heard you being interviewed with Paul W. Smith about a month ago. I think you were in Bay Harbor and the first thing you said that morning was, “I want to thank God.” You’re 23 years old. Why?
God has been a huge part of my life, and I think that from the medical side of things to all the challenges, I’ve been fortunate enough to realize how important my relationship with God is. Throughout these different challenges, he’s always been the person that I lean on the most. With that comes prayer, and just being able to spend time in His Word. It’s my relationship with God, and I think everyone’s relationship with God is about being able to spend time with him and in His Word with different challenges. Being able to pray and have that one on one time with the Lord, and then for the people that he’s blessed me with in my life, I think that that’s one of the amazing things that He has done. For me, it’s just being able to put people in my life that are so strong in their faith and so strong and in bettering other people. I’ve been very, very fortunate to have that as a great opportunity from the Lord.
I believe faith and attitude are everything.
Like I said before, faith has been the driving force for me to be successful. But with that comes your attitude and attitude in life is so important. I try to wake up every morning with a smile on my face, and that sort of sets the tone, whether it’s a challenging day. Being able to have that smile on your face will allow you to strive and to have that positive attitude.
You’re an international bestseller. The name of the book is Untethered: Inspiration for Living Free and Strong No Matter What the Challenge. I want to focus on a couple of chapters. Chapter 16: You’re Never Alone in a Hospital.
When I say you’re never alone in a hospital, there’s a lot of aspects to that. One of them is having God there with you every minute. The other with those with being in a hospital, there are so many amazing people that really are there to help you and support you. I’ve been very fortunate with parents that do that as well. It’s really a blessing being able to realize how many people are there to comfort you and strengthen you, and most importantly, the Lord being there with you.
Like a rubber band.
Back to the some of the medical things in my life, I had what they call tethered spinal cord, and it’s part of VATER syndrome. It was found later on in my life. But basically, what happens is your spinal cord attaches to your nerves that are supposed to float freely throughout your vertebrae. They call this tethered spinal cord. Throughout my life, playing different sports and things we started with, I realized that I had different symptoms that shouldn’t be there and could become big problems. Thanks to doctors and great surgeons, they have given me the ability to find out what the problem was and to be able to fix it correctly. I’ve actually had two spinal cord surgeries that were successful and allowed me to be able to be active the way I am today.
Chapter 23: Navigating the Middle Years.
Navigating the middle years, I was able to be homeschooled and in the FAST Reading program. I had an amazing teacher, Donna Martin, who supported me and supported the FAST program throughout every part of our daily routine. This was a really great time for me to grow in a lot of ways. What I mean by that is, it really enhanced my reading and brought me back up to speed in a lot of other classes and areas. It was a great time for me to be learning when it came to shadowing different professions and being able to spend time in the FAST program and spend time with Steve as well.
Alright, Castle Door.
The Castle Door is the chapter that talks about my experience when I moved to Denver to really immerse myself in the FAST program. This was the latter part of the fifth grade and this was where I got to spend one on one time with Steve and his professional tutors, and be at a school that really had an emphasis on being able to enhance any person’s challenges weathers dyslexia and reading or whether it was writing. For me was a big chapter of my life being able to enhance all that. One of the big things with being there, I realized was there’s so many kids back home when we were leaving Denver Academy, I was emotional. I told my parents, I told Steve, I said, “No offense, Steve, I’m not crying, because I’m gonna miss you. But I’m crying for all the kids back home, who don’t have the ability to pick up and move to Denver and be able to be immersed in the program.”
That’s when Steve said to me, “You find the teachers, the students and I will be there to teach them. And, and, and with that it sort of started to it. That’s when we moved back to Detroit. And really, Steve’s big impact with beyond basics, and many other people in schools and teachers really started to bring that program into effect here in the greater Detroit area.
No Bad Days, Just Hard Ones.
So it’s a little thing that I always like to say, but that came up with me and my mom one day. Her mom was saying, “JT, this is going to be a tough surgery. This is going to be challenging and a tough recovery.”
That’s when I looked to my mom and said, “Mom, there’s no bad days, there’s just tough days.” What I mean by that is I think the biggest thing is that the Lord is there with you every step of the way. You can do anything through him and in persevere through him.
JT’s Mom, Chris is here with us, so I’ve asked her to take over the mic. Chris, I want to ask you a couple questions. Let’s go back 23 year. God blesses you with a son, and then the doctors quickly say, “Mom, these are some of the issues. We don’t know all of them, but a lot of issues.” And God says to you, “Chris, I’ll give you a choice. I’ll magically make him perfect. Or leave him with all these issues. And your life will never be the same.” What would you have said to God, Chris?
Chris Mestdagh: We’ve already as a husband and wife, Jim and I, had this discussion. We’ve always felt from day one, we never asked why, but we really felt it was a blessing. A blessing because not only would our life have never put us in the hospital to meet the doctors and nurses that we’ve met, and other families that have had problems not like ours, but problems. We’ve been able to share the Word with them, and been able to move around the country for other doctors and other hospitals that were able to handle the situation since his syndrome is extremely rare. We never felt we would be missionaries packing our bags going to Africa. But in turn God, he packed our bags and moved us from hospital to hospital, where we were able to share the Word and through JT’s spirit, which is waking up every day with a smile. And people wondering why—what is it that’s so different with him. I can only say that Jesus has worked through him and through us to spread the Word.
To answer your question, we wouldn’t have changed a thing. And then educationally, we’ve been able to be in educational systems to help it along. We’ve learned a lot and hopefully we’ve touched lives, too.
What’s the biggest thing JT has taught Chris and Jim Mestdagh?
That miracles still happen every single day. By watching him, your attitude does affect the outcome of whatever your situation is. And it’s tough to always be up for most people, but we have learned how to put our trust in faith in our Heavenly Father, and to look at each day as another opportunity to hopefully touch a life.
If there is a listener tonight, a couple who have just had a child and there’s major issues and they’re fearful. They’re mad. They’re confused. Chris, what would just say to that couple tonight?
That’s a tough question because it is hard. There’s a lot of dark moments, but I would definitely say to find peace by being prayerful and to really not look into the future. Just go week by week, or even at some points, it’s hour by hour. Because we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. And if we would have known some of the things, our attitude would’ve been different. If you can just look at the moment and get through it and pray for peace.
Speaking of the moment, let’s go back JT to September 20 10th. And you tell Mom and Dad, “I think I’m going to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro.” Mom says, “Whoa!”
Tell us about Mount Kilimanjaro.
JT Mestdagh: In my life, I’ve always had this sort of time for me to spend in God’s country. What I refer to as God’s country is just anything outdoors. That’s my sort of escape route from different challenges from that you that we’ve talked about today. For example, in this past October, we had the opportunity to go to Kilimanjaro and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. The people that I did it with were lifelong friends and mentors of ours that have had a ton of experience in the outdoors. I think that was a huge comforting factor for my parents. We had the opportunity to go and we took it up.
Normally, it takes six to eight days to get to the top. You guys did it in four. Did you ever doubt whether you’d make it?
With the medical side of things, I’d never spent more than 24 hours away from a rush room. So this was a big, big undertaking. We said, “You know what, we want to set a high goal for this.” And so our goal was to do it in four days. And we did summit on the fourth day and accomplished our goal. But along the way, there were challengers. With the medical piece, the first several days were great during the climb. Every day of my life, I have to do a medical procedure. And that procedure, I put about 500 CC’s of solution that allows for me to irrigate my system. I catheterize myself through my belly button and do a surgery that a doctor, Dr. Penny, created that allows me to flush through my system every day for about an hour. We had to do this on Kilimanjaro. And during the climb on our last day, we had contamination in my medical treatment, which ended up stemming into our final day of climbing, and in that day, about halfway to the summit, I started to have symptoms of altitude sickness, diarrhea, nausea which came from having a bad treatment. So the last day was a big struggle.
We pushed through and there was really no way to turn around on this final ascent. As we push forward and having the guidance of our guides, got there safe and sound. As we arrived at the summit, I remember seeing that sign of Kilimanjaro summit, and it was a really emotional and spiritual moment for me. From having a struggle of going up the climb, and then to the bigger struggle in my life of never thinking that I’d have an opportunity to do something like that. I think that that was why it was so emotional, and in such a moment to be attached to what the Lord has done for me.
In January of ‘18 you started the JT Mestdagh Foundation. Tell us about that.
I started the JT Mestdagh foundation. I really want to give back to many areas of my life, but a big portion would be medical. For me when it comes to medical, buying supplies, and things like that, unfortunately, are not covered by insurance. There’s a huge area that my foundation can help out in supporting others with challenges that have supplies and things like that. They don’t have the ability to get the resources.
As our time winds down JT, what advice do you give to our young listeners tonight?
To our listeners, I have to say that a positive attitude and the people you surround yourself with are so important. Those mentors in your life can really give you so much support and impact you so much, and also just having a strong faith and being there with the Lord is so important.
JT Mestdagh, you told me, “Jack, I want to touch one life.” Sir, you touch many, many lives every day. Keep up the great, great work.
Thank you so much.