Writing this story was a challenge for me. I’ve never met Zach Bertsch; we did the interview via phone. But he is the same age as my daughter and to think of what he has come up against causes me to experience a myriad of emotions – anger, fear, doubt. I don’t understand why Zach has cancer at such a young age and when he has so much concern for helping people. I’m convinced he and his wife are working through the disease as well as they can with their Christian faith. They are quite an amazing couple.
It’s not a word people use often. According to http://www.Dictionary.com, one definition is “to buy or pay off, as with a mortgage.” It can also mean “to recover” as something pledged by payment, such as the act of redeeming a pawned watch.
We understand these definitions as they relate to ordinary subjects. Put the word into the mouth of 28-year-old Bluffton resident Zach Bertsch and it becomes a gilt-laden combination of love, sacrifice and honor.
Bertsch, an Adams Central High School graduate, is the healthcare administrator at Christian Care Retirement Community in Bluffton. He has a Masters of Business Administration degree and has earned his CPA license. For two years he worked at Gateway Children’s Home in Leo (www.gatewaywoodschildrenshome.org) as an account and business manager. He and his wife Jenny, a case worker at Gateway, have two children, three-year-old Zion and one-year-old Moriah.
The work Zach and Jenny had done at Gateway had spurred a passion between them to provide a Christian home for children in need and they planned to expand their family by adopting children of their own someday.
Then, in June 2010, the Bertsch’s plans came to a screeching halt.
Zach, experiencing physical discomfort for a few months, underwent a colonoscopy. The results were shocking: he had a tumor in his colon that had metastasized to his liver and lungs. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.
It was so rare for someone of Zach’s age to have an advanced stage of this cancer that he was immediately referred to cancer specialists at IU Medical Center in Indianapolis. No one in Zach’s family (his parents are Mike and Carmen Bertsch of Bluffton) had a history of colon cancer at Zach’s age.
If Zach’s cancer had been discovered at Stage 1 or 2, surgeons might have been able to remove the tumor, giving him a 95 percent chance of survival. With the spread of the cancer to other organs, however, Zach’s chance of survival is reduced to four percent. At the time of his diagnosis in July 2010 Zach was given two and a half years to live.
Currently, Zach is undergoing chemotherapy, hoping to extend his life to five years. Zach is also undergoing genetic testing to see if his children could be predisposed to colon cancer. “They will be scheduled for colonoscopies starting at young ages because of this,” said Zach.
This is when the word ‘redemption’ seems to take on a gilt-laden meaning. This young man who has studied and worked hard and is raising a family and loving his wife could rightfully be angry at being given such a lot in life. Instead, he sounded composed as he discussed his future recently. “The medical community says it will be a miracle if I beat the cancer,” he said. “If I don’t, I want to redeem the situation by creating something good that would have never happened otherwise. It has to be something that might have never happened if I had never had cancer.”
The ‘redeeming’ quality has taken the shape of a project Zach and Jenny have organized that blends things close to their hearts – needy children and not-for-profit groups. With the help of
Loving Shepherd Ministries (www.loving-shepherd.org), an international adoption agency in Bluffton, Zach and Jenny have established a goal of raising money to build homes in Haiti for orphans. “Our idea was to build one home for each member of our immediate family,” said Zach.
Partnering with a church near Las Cayes, they hope to establish a 10-acre campus in Haiti that would house 48 children. The campus would also include a church, soccer field and fellowship building.
“It’s our way of semi-adopting many children into Christian homes,” said Zach. He has been to Haiti twice on missions trips with the Apostolic Christian Church where his family attends.
In October 2010 the Bertsches started a website they call the Cancer Redemption Project (www.cancerredemption.com)). By posting information about the Haitian homes on the blog and relaying the idea to family and friends, the couple has raised $225,000. “We hope to start construction by summer 2011,” said Zach.
Although initial costs to construct the homes have been reached ($50,000 each), Zach emphasizes the need for the project to receive ongoing support. “Each home will need $2,500 each month for maintenance,” he said.
The Bertsches plan, if Zach’s health is good enough, to fly to Haiti in fall 2011 to check on the project’s progress. “Hopefully, after I’m gone, Jenny will be able to continue going to Haiti to stay active on a small scale,” said Zach. “When our children get old enough, I hope they’ll go down, too, to help.”
Today, Zach is back to work full-time after being off for extensive periods during the past year for surgeries and recovery. He travels to Indianapolis one day every other week to see his specialist and have chemotherapy, the latter of which causes him to be fatigued and have a loss of appetite (his weight has fallen from 175 pounds to 155 pounds). “I have to force myself to eat when I’m undergoing chemo and I only have a fraction of the energy I used to,” he said.
Still, Zach is thankful for many things in his life. “I love my job at Christian Care Retirement Community,” he said. “Many of our residents pray for me. I can relate to health struggles and end-of-life issues our elderly have to endure.”
He also commends his hometown for its support. “I have been humbled and amazed at the love from my church family and the Bluffton community,” he said. “I am so thankful to live in a community where so many people love the Lord and pray for each other.”
That doesn’t mean he understands completely what is happening to him. “I’ve been a Christian since age 17 and look forward to going to Heaven,” he said, then paused. “But it’s hard to think of leaving a wife and children I love.”
Still, he refused to give up on his spiritual faith. “I believe God gave me this cancer for a reason,” he said. “If I can redeem it and make an impact on the world, it may be the best thing that ever happened to me. Because of the cancer, we’re providing homes for 48 children who might otherwise have been exploited. I look forward to meeting them in heaven someday. Dealing with cancer is easier for me if it causes other people to be in heaven.”