Thirty-one years ago, Mike Bartels was fighting for his life.
What started as a crick in his neck grew into a lump that spread on his body. Soon he fell ill and had to be medically transported to Kapiolani Medical Center in Hawaii.
Diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Bartels, raised in Agana Heights, was 11, and instead of playing with kids his age enjoying the outdoors and school, he was undergoing biopsies and chemotherapy.
“I just remember the chemo being the most horrible thing I’ve ever gone through. There was a lot of physical pain,” said Bartels. “Every time I was awake and conscious, I was in pain.”
His parents did their best to keep their son comfortable and in good spirits, but Bartels saw how the stress of his sickness was affecting them, especially his mom.
In August 1988, he was visited by a woman from Guam.
“She was an angel,” stated Bartels, smiling. “Someone had mentioned that there was a lady who grants wishes.”
Sylvia Flores, one of the founders of the Make-A-Wish Foundation on Guam, visited Bartels and told the boy about the organization’s mission to grant wishes and told him to think about what wish he wanted.
Bartels remembered there was an older Apple computer that he could play on occasionally in his hospital room.
“At the time it was cool to get an Apple computer, but my parents couldn’t afford it,” he said.
A few days later, he was visited by then Lt. Gov. Frank Blas, who had just founded the Make-A-Wish chapter for Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“What is it you wish for?” Blas asked the boy.
“I want an Apple computer, I told him, and I will never forget those words, he said, ‘Wish granted.’”
Two days later, Bartels received a hospital pass and loaded into a station wagon with his parents and headed to downtown Ala Moana Boulevard to Micro Age Computers.
“They opened the store just for me before it opened to the public. I picked out an Apple computer,” he recalled. “It definitely had a profound effect on the entire situation, not only on me but on my family. Think of it as the positive thing to offset the negative.”
Bartels said the entire wish-granting experience was uplifting and a memory he will carry for a lifetime.
Although the gift was given 31 years ago, he said there are constant reminders of the wish he was granted.
“Every time I sit at a computer or look at my iPhone or I see this (Apple) symbol, I think about the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” he stated. “It had a positive effect on the course of my life.”
Bartels, 44, has enjoyed life in remission. He is a major in the U.S. Air Force living in Hawaii.
His personal battle with cancer has helped him be an advocate and support for both his father and mother who were diagnosed with cancer.
Last year, Bartels' mother was diagnosed with stage 1 endometriotic cancer.
“The tables are turned. I told her, ‘Mom, I’m going to carry you to the finish line as you did to me,’ and she’s doing well today,” he explained.
Bartels was the second recipient of a wish granted by the Make-A-Wish Guam & CNMI chapter. The organization has since granted 298 other wishes, and currently averages granting one wish a month.
Last year, Make-A-Wish Executive Director Eric Tydingco was looking through old files and met with Flores who said she’d heard Bartels was in the Air Force and doing well. He was fascinated and wanted to learn more.
“It was a frantic search. I did Google and didn’t find anything… He was so off the grid,” Tydingco said. A mutual friend helped connect the two and they met in Hawaii in March.
When Tydingco asked him to come to Guam to be the guest of honor at this weekend’s Make-A-Wish Black Tie and Tennies Gala, Bartels said he was honored and humbled. The annual gala is the nonprofit’s premier fundraising event and 100% of the funds stay on Guam to grant wishes of children suffering from various conditions and life-threatening illnesses on Guam and the CNMI.
Attendees are encouraged to wear formal or black-tie attire but keep comfortable with tennis shoes that serve as a reminder of the purpose of the gala event – the kids.
“It’s that playfulness factor that children should have. We want them to be comfortable. If (the kids) are comfortable with tennis shoes, we’re all going to wear tennis shoes and be in the same playground,” said the executive director.
Make-A-Wish board members chipped in for Bartels to come to Guam, so the expense wouldn’t come out of the organization. Tydingco said United Airlines learned about the story and upgraded Bartels' travel to Business Class.
“Mike’s story is a powerful one for us and it’s right in line with how we want to dispel the myths that eligibility of the kids – that this is a final wish, that everything is a final wish,” said Tydingco.
“It’s not make a final wish. It’s Make-A-Wish and I’m a testament that I didn’t make a final wish. Yes, I was terminally ill, but things changed and I’m still here to be an advocate,” stated Bartels.
Bartels intended to surprise his mom, but his 90-year-old grandmother recently fell ill and was hospitalized, putting added stress on the family as they struggled to figure out who would help care for her. He broke the news and considers this trip to Guam for this weekend’s gala another wish granted as his visit couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Make-A-Wish Foundation – it’s a gift that keeps on giving,” he said. “I always say God’s a great chess player. He knows how to put the pieces and he uses his awesome people to make these things happen.”