Clinging to Faith in the Face of Adversity – Joel Matthews' Story :: Bob Jones University Alumni and Friends
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Clinging to Faith in the Face of Adversity

Joel Matthews' Story

If you’ve ever sweetened your coffee with one of the many choices of sweetener packets on the table at most restaurants or from the store shelf, chances are good that you have used a product from Joel Matthews’ packaging company in Decatur, Alabama. Founded by Joel’s father in 1985, National Packaging specializes in packaging an array of artificial and natural sweeteners in packets, sticks, and pouches. Today, Joel serves as the president and CEO, carrying on his father’s vision.

A Change of Direction

“Four years after I graduated from Bob Jones University in marketing, my dad asked me to come back to the company and be his warehouse supervisor,” says Joel. “It really had nothing to do with my major. We weren’t doing any sales or marketing to speak of at that time.” Still, Joel says his appetite was whetted for the technology side of the business. 

“Back then we used 'sneakernet,' " laughs Joel. “That’s where you take the floppy disk out of one computer and run it over to the next office.” Joel worked his way up through the company, developing a tracking system to manage pallet identification and product tracking that the company used until just a few years ago. 

It seemed like everything was clicking along nicely for Joel and his wife, their five children, and the company. 

And then their world was turned upside down.

Elizabeth St Jude Clinic Huntsville Alabama getting chemo

Diagnosis: Cancer

In November of 2014, Joel’s 15-year old daughter, Elizabeth, began feeling sick. But so did several other members of the family. It was cold and flu season after all. Then in January, they noticed a lump on Elizabeth’s neck. The lump was especially concerning since this was not the extended family’s first fight with cancer. 

“My sister struggled with Hodgkin’s lymphoma for 15 years and passed away in 2002,” says Joel. “I was almost certain that’s what Elizabeth had, but I didn’t want to convey that to my wife and daughter.”

In late January, after several more weeks of sickness, the family decided it was time to see a doctor. A pediatrician measured the lump, prescribed antibiotics, and ran blood work, but when nothing changed he sent them on to a specialist at St. Jude’s Clinic in Huntsville. 

More tests and more blood work were inconclusive, but no one felt too concerned about it just yet. Still, the specialist recommended a biopsy. Just two days later, Joel received a phone call with news no parent wants to hear. 

Elizabeth had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

FIGHT CANCER. TRUST GOD.

“The early process took more than a month, but once we went to the clinic and the biopsy was ordered things started moving fast,” said Joel. “We received her diagnosis on Good Friday and went in for her first round of chemo just a week later.”

All through that spring, Elizabeth traveled back and forth to the clinic for 8 rounds of chemo, and for one month during the summer she stayed in Memphis with her mom for daily radiation. The radiation process seemed simple enough—just 5 minutes aimed directly at the cancer site. It took longer to set up than it did to do the treatment. Since the cancer hadn’t spread extensively yet, doctors were hopeful that the one-two punch of chemo plus radiation therapy would take care of the problem.

GROUND ZERO

The next phase of Elizabeth’s treatment would involve several injections designed to boost her body’s stem cell production, followed by a stem cell harvesting procedure, chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells, and reintroduction of the stem cells to promote healing.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Joel says. “During the stem cell harvesting, they would draw blood, run it through a machine that separated out the stem cells, and then return it to her body. All of her blood cycled through the machine, but never more than a pint or two was out of her body at one time.” 

Once the cells were harvested, Elizabeth would undergo chemotherapy to kill anything and everything that could cause harm. Unfortunately, there is no way to protect the beneficial microbes and bacteria from the chemotherapy so they would all be eliminated as well, leaving Elizabeth’s immune system completely depleted. At this point, known as Ground Zero, even a tiny sniffle could be fatal. Then, and only then, could the stem cells be transferred back into her bloodstream, where her body would program them to develop into various types of cells so her immune system could begin gaining strength again.

Elizabeth_St_Jude_Clinic_Huntsville_Alabama_with_Nurses_opt.jpg

Finding God in the Cancer Ward

"I don’t know how people survive without the Lord," says Joel. "We met so many people in the cancer wing of St. Jude’s who knew that the Lord was the only way they were going to survive. There were so many instances where our faith was strengthened by someone we weren’t even sure was saved, but they were saying the same things my pastor would have been saying to me. It’s really a special place."

Me_and_Elizabeth_square.jpgBecause stem cell treatment destroys the body’s immune system, Elizabeth had to remain quarantined at St. Jude’s so she wouldn’t be exposed to any potentially life-threatening illnesses. Several times each week after work, Joel commuted 3.5 hours from Decatur to Memphis to be with Elizabeth and give his wife a chance to rest. During those commutes, he listened to sermons from people like Jim Berg, Dr. Bob Jones III, Dr. Bob Wood, Nathan Crockett and others. 

"God used those men and their preaching as well as personal friendships with some of them to keep our faith strong," says Joel. "They were our extended family, and through them I was reminded that God is more than enough."

Joel relied heavily on the prayers and encouragement of his BJU family during this intensely emotional and stressful time.

"When you come through Bob Jones, you never leave Bob Jones," he says. "It’s a special place full of special people who love God’s Word and love seeing God work in people’s lives. God loved our family through their faithfulness to pray and care."

God Will Bring You Through

"Dad, am I going to make it out of here?" The question was one Joel had been dreading, and one he didn’t have an answer for. So he responded to Elizabeth’s question with one of his own.

"Honey, why would you be worried about that? You’ve been raised to know your life is in the Lord’s hands, not ours and not the doctor’s. We have tremendous technology, but ultimately, you might walk out of here and get hit by a car. Let’s get death off our lips. Let’s quit worrying about dying. Because the day God wants you in heaven, you don’t want to be here a day longer. It’s time you lie there and ask God your questions and trust him with the answer. God brought you to this. He will get you through it."

The words seemed to come out of nowhere, but Joel knew they’d come from the Lord in his time of need. "Nothing in me would have given that answer except the Lord leading me in response to Elizabeth’s question," Joel says.

"It’s not impossible to be happy where God has put you," Joel told Elizabeth. "Lie here and pour out your heart to the Lord, and ask him to help you rest."

Patience Rewarded

That night, for the first time in weeks, Elizabeth slept for four hours straight. Even the nurses were surprised as they were used to coming in frequently to adjust equipment leads and the oxygen mask. 

"I don’t think Elizabeth remembers any of this event," says Joel. "I’ve asked her. But I remember it, and I remember knowing that the Lord was there showing us His love and sustaining grace at that moment and knowing that He would continue to do so."

It took upwards of 6 months before Elizabeth was feeling well again. But the stem cell treatment worked. Elizabeth has been in remission for the past three years. She is making plans to attend BJU as a nursing major, and Joel gives God all the glory. 

"When we are surrounded by our enemy, what hope do we have? We have to ask God to open our eyes so we can see the invisible. God is all-powerful and when he has a child in the midst of a trial, he is always there. We just have to see him through faith."

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