Unafraid: band director Josh Bartz navigates a serious illness using the power of faith

Bartz and his wife, Rachelle, who has been a key source of support for him throughout his illness.

Courtesy of Josh Bartz

Bartz and his wife, Rachelle, who has been a key source of support for him throughout his illness.

Cameron Myers, News Editor

If someone had told band director Josh Bartz that the evening after successfully completing a triathlon  that he had spent months preparing for he would suffer a frustratingly debilitating illness that would keep him out of school for an entire year, he would have responded with an incredulous side-eye. He was in the best shape and health of his life and getting ready to start a new and exciting season with the band and an amazing show concept. Everything was looking up… except when it wasn’t anymore, and Bartz found himself, that very evening, looking at the inside of an ambulance.


The onset

Bartz and his family picking strawberries together just days before the incident. Photo courtesy of Josh Bartz.

On June 9th, 2018, Bartz rested in his bed after the grueling experience of completing the Seahorse triathlon. After a night of tight muscles, a headache, and restless sleep, he woke up in pain and believing he might be having a stroke: he couldn’t speak or move his left leg. His wife, Rachelle, called 911, and Bartz was taken by ambulance to Bronson Hospital, where he remained for nearly two weeks while doctors tested for every possible cause of his illness.

“Once I learned that my husband was suffering, I was frightened and scared for him because I didn’t know what was happening,” said Rachelle. “With my fear inside me, I kept praying to the Lord for protection for my family and for my husband.” The specific prayer that Rachelle prayed, and has continued to pray over the ordeal, is Psalm 91, a protection verse that contains the words: “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:14-16, NIV). The family’s shared faith would be a cornerstone for their journey moving forward.


Faith beginnings

Bartz and his wife established their faith roots many years ago. They loved to travel, and one of the places they had the opportunity to visit was Disney World, where they went on a school trip with Bartz’s former band program in Dowagiac. One of the chaperones was the pastor of Sister Lakes Community Church in Dowagiac, and he invited them to attend one of his services. The Bartz’s accepted the offer and joined the Pastor at his church, and the experience ultimately led them to a relationship with Christ through Christianity. The Bartz family has been attending Valley Family Church in Portage for 11 ½ years, and Bartz put his tech skills to use outside of the TV internship classroom by serving on the tech team during the main services every other week. The family also led a church group for married couples with young children, inviting other church members to their home monthly for Bible study and fellowship.


Navigating medical uncertainty

As Bartz was plagued with new symptoms, his diagnosis kept shifting and his doctors were unable to pinpoint what exactly was wrong and how to make it better. “When I was in the hospital, what kept changing was my emotions, so I had to go back and look to the Lord and read through the Bible,” said Bartz. One particular verse that kept Bartz strong was Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.” This verse helped Bartz overcome his negative thoughts by staying grounded in his spiritual roots.

Bartz was eventually able to go back home and recover on his couch with his children keeping him company. He was immediately surrounded by love: his church and school family came with every measure of support, from providing meals to doing laundry to providing financial support. “It is such a blessing to have family members and friends who are willing to do selfless activities for my family and me,” he said. As time went on, he became temporarily discouraged by his physical limitations. “I felt useless at my house, laying in the couch for days, not being able to help my family,” he said. “But the word of God said in Mark 2:10-11, ‘So I will prove to you that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home.”’ This verse helped Bartz realize that, with strength, faith, and conviction, he was able to help his family in many different ways and still be there when they needed him.

The journey to a diagnosis continued to be frustrating, and it was difficult for Bartz to not be able to go to school. “What keeps me motivated in my faith is emotional letters from my family, friends, text messages and cards from fellow colleagues,” he said.

After being treated at Bronson Hospital, Bartz transferred his care to the University of Michigan in the middle of July. There, he was diagnosed with a Chiari 1 Malformation and an accompanying arachnoid cyst.  “Chiari is a serious neurological problem where part of the brain ends up pushing out of the skull, crowding the top of the spinal cord,” Bartz explained. “It is a relatively rare condition, similar in population and symptomatology to MS.” The plan was for Bartz for be evaluated for surgery, which would be invasive and risky but with favorable outcomes in patients Bartz’s age. “Whether we went with the surgery or not, we were still believing for a full recovery,” he said. The diagnosis would change again before he began his official road to recovery, but he didn’t know that as he faced day to day physical, emotional, and mental challenges. Through it all, one element was constant: his faith.


Keeping the Faith

Bartz joins his family in supporting his daughter AnnaBelle at a volleyball tournament. “This was a first family outing for me in the healing process,” he said. Photo courtesy of Josh Bartz.

Despite the frustration and uncertainty that he faced, the single most important thing to Bartz -and his family- was his faith in the Lord. Former NHS social studies teacher Tony Moon is one of Bartz’s closest friends and church mates. “I took him out because he was cooped up in his house and needed a friend at the time,” said Moon. “Sometimes you just need to get out and be normal in the midst of a struggle.” One of the most enjoyable parts of their friendship is they get to magnify the Lord together by being in each other’s company and praying out each other’s struggles. “I have simply linked my faith together with his. We pray in agreement for his healing and we are both thankful for it,” Moon said. Specifically, they frequently pray over Matthew 18:19, which says, “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” (NIV).

Family members and colleagues have been always been supporting Bartz in his road to recovery for almost 7 months, constantly praying for him and improving his faith simply by loving on him. “I have never been patient in my life until now, until I have put all of my weight on to the Lord and trusted in him. Now I have felt the most confidence that I will be healed in Jesus’ Name!” said Bartz.


God’s Hand

Looking back, the Bartz family is quick to identify the hand of God throughout the entire situation. The night of when everything started, former band parents were actually the first on the scene when Rachelle called the ambulance. “As a wife, I was having panic attacks during this situation, including that I should have done something to help my husband out. It felt like an affirmation when the parents told me that he doesn’t look good at all and he needed help,” said Rachelle, who believes that divine love and intervention placed key people around them at crucial times throughout the ordeal.

The Bartz’s believe that another illustration of God’s guidance throughout the situation happened months earlier, when the band program had the opportunity to travel to Ireland for a week. At the time, their family was weighing the financial decision to send Rachelle on the trip with Josh or to plan for a family vacation to Disney later in the year.  After a long and drawn out time of consideration and prayer, Rachelle felt led to choose the latter. “It surprised me,” he said. “I had to trust in the Lord that he will guide me down the right path when it comes to this type of situation.” With weeks of debating, Bartz also felt more of a tug towards the Disney trip. That decision led them to start saving money for the Disney trip instead of spending it on the Ireland trip: a decision that would prove crucial to the family’s financial stability in the months when Bartz would be unable to work and the family would have high medical and travel costs. “God saw this before we did, and helped us get prepared,” Rachelle said, laughing as she recalled another sign of preparation that she originally thought was a joke: with as busy as the family schedule was before the incident, Bartz often couldn’t find the time to keep up with household maintenance chores, like mowing the lawn, so he joked about getting a Robin, which is a robot lawn mower. He ended up purchasing one shortly before he became ill. “It sounds funny, but it was really helpful because it was one less thing to worry about,” Rachelle said.

The couple attributes the timing of people in key places, the trip decision, and the lawn mower, among several other miraculous occurrences, directly to their faith.  “With God’s hand in your life, you get that anointment that will have the right thing that will get you through that rough situation,” said Bartz. “The hands and feet of our faith helps us grow, not just with my family, but also with the relationship with the Lord.”


Moving forward

Mayo Clinic, December 19th, 2018: the first time since June that Bartz was able to walk unassisted. “I donated my cane to the amputee therapy clinic; they shared a therapy clinic/gym with my BeST program,” he said. Photo courtesy of Josh Bartz.

Though firmly grounded on the faith side of things, Bartz still felt unsettled with the lack of progress on the medical front. In late October, he travelled to the Mayo Clinic, where he spent a whirlwind two weeks. “We went to about 30 appointments with specialists during that time,” he said, “and we couldn’t be happier with our decision.”

While the specialists noted the Chiari malformation that was discovered at U of M, they did not believe that it was symptomatic, which removed the dangerous surgery from the picture. What they did discover, however, was equally mysterious: they believe that Bartz’s illness was caused by Functional Movement Disorder (FMD) and Central Sensitization Disorder.  “Essentially how they have described this to me is that my brain, for an unknown reason (up to 50% are never able to figure it out), deleted the ‘software’ for walking. It essentially forgot how to walk (as well as possibly a couple other things),” he said. FMDs happen spontaneously and without warning, are difficult to diagnose, and are often misdiagnosed for many years. “The good news is that I was able to meet with one of the leading neurologists in the world for movement disorders, and he recommended me for the Mayo Clinic BeST Program,” Bartz said. “This is a 1 week intensive therapy that involves very specific techniques developed at the Mayo Clinic that functionally retrain the brain to walk. . .  there are only 2 programs like it in the country and people fly in from all over the world to attend. Many of my doctors mentioned that they had patients who were in wheelchairs for years, and that after this program were able to walk out of the clinic!”

Bartz spent two weeks at the end of October and the beginning of November at Mayo, and he returned again the week before Christmas.  Today, he finds himself not just on the road to recovery, but at the beginning of a five week transition to part-time teaching at PNHS. While modern medicine no doubt played a part, he knows that he has arrived at this point by -and through- faith. “The fact that I was able to see some of the world leaders in this area in such a short amount of time is truly miraculous,” he says. “It was never my timing with everything that happened, it was all God’s timing. Even though I never wanted to have this issue, God was the one who guided me through the rough times.”