Joe Stolpa is a tall, lanky guy with a Mustang and a pony-tail. He’s also a terrific guitar player. About a year ago, Joe came , at our bass player, Joe Brokaw’s suggestion, to one of our band practices (Karmann and Kompany). Joe B. thought he might be a good fit. Joe Stolpa has been playing with us ever since. Recently, Joe S. shared his testimony with me–a powerful story about disease, healing, and prayer that touched me deeply. I asked him if I could share it with TRC readers, and he gave his permission:
Born and raised in Ohio, Joe started playing guitar at age 14. He put himself through college, graduating with a degree in music. He played in a lot of bars before moving to Phoenix in 1983. In 1985, he got a job with the United States Postal Service, where he met Ace Balderrama. Joe and Ace became good friends. Joe had grown up Catholic, but in 1986, Ace and his family took Joe to a program called Hi-Tops. Through the program, Joe accepted Christ.
Ace wrote lyrics for Christian songs. He and Joe would work on them, Joe adding a rift, Ace fine tuning the words, until the songs were developed. Joe and Ace eventually formed a Christian blues and rock band called RU. Joe also played on the worship team at his church, Calvary Chapel North Phoenix.
Joe’s odyssey started over Labor Day weekend in 2009 when an allergic reaction to an antibiotic sent him to the emergency room. While there, test results showed his platelet count was dangerously low. Platelets are actively involved in the coagulation of blood. Normal platelet count is about 150, Joe’s level was down to 69.
Joe’s doctor ran many more tests, including a bone marrow biopsy. The doctor determined that Joe had ‘ITP’, an abbreviation of a long phrase which means, “you’re loosing platelets and we don’t know why.” The doctor was talking chemotherapy. Joe was more interested in finding the cause rather then treating the symptom.
The doctor prescribed Prednisone, which resulted in weight gain, and other unpleasant side effect, but did little to stem the loss of platelets. In spite of his deteriorating health, Joe didn’t change his schedule. He continued working his physically demanding job at the main post office in Phoenix. He was finding it harder and harder to continue his job due to fatigue. The slightest bump would cause severe bruising, especially on his arms and legs.
In March of 2010, a co-worker handed him a piece of paper with the name and number of a doctor. He knew Joe had been thinking about getting a second opinion. Later in his shift, Joe’s supervisor gave him the name and number of the same doctor. That was the day Joe realized he needed to leave his job of 25 years and concentrate on his health.
Joe’s condition gave him an opportunity to witness to his family. His sisters called often to check on him. They were concerned that he was in Phoenix by himself. Joe told them he wasn’t alone. God was with him. He said if God healed him through doctors, then he’d be healed. If God chose to take him home, he’s still healed. Around this same time, Joe’s son and his family came out to see him. Joe wanted them to have a good visit, so he didn’t tell them how bad things had gotten.
Joe recalls rehearsing for an outreach in Payson, Arizona in April of 2010. The longer he played, the more his fingers hurt. He looked down and saw blood on his guitar. The strings were cutting into his fingertips causing them to bleed. That didn’t stop him. “I wasn’t going to let the devil get a foothold,” Joe said, “and I knew if I stopped doing this stuff, I was just going to be sitting on my rear and getting depressed. I was not going to get depressed. My feeling was to keep playing until I couldn’t do it any more. God gave me the strength to keep going.”
A couple of days later, Joe, along with Ace and the rest of RU, were at Calvary Chapel in Payson, where the outreach was held. He recalls it was a great day. He was happy but exhausted by the end of it. He remembers talking to the pastor who told him, “We’re praying for you.” Joe knew he was on prayer lists, but he suddenly realized just how many, and how wide spread, those prayers were. People who didn’t know him, whom he probably would never meet, were offering prayers of healing to the Lord for his sake. He was overwhelmed and brought to tears.
Joe switched doctors. His platelet count had dropped to 7. The new doctor conducted another bone marrow biopsy and diagnosed Joe as having myelo dysplasia, or as Joe puts it, “It’s a fancy way of saying the platelets and the red blood cells are dying”. He underwent 4 treatments of Rituxin, delivered by IV straight into his veins. His blood count went up to 14, but it wasn’t enough.
The doctor thought Joe was in the early stages of leukemia. Joe was facing the possibility of a bone marrow transplant. His three sisters and brother were tested as possible donors and his brother was a match. Joe was given a booklet that detailed the transplant procedure. He would have to go through five days of chemo treatments before the procedure to kill the old bone marrow. He would be in ICU for five to six weeks, not to mention the side effects of many of the drugs he’d need to take.
Joe remembers putting down the book and crying out out to God, “Lord, if you want me to do this, you’re going to have to get me through it. Right now, I don’t have the strength, but I know you’ll give me the strength. Just like Jesus said in the garden, “Thy will be done, not mine!” If it’s your will Lord, I’m OK with it.”
A funny thing started happening. Joe’s doctor had been keeping a close check on his platelet count with weekly blood tests. His platelet count rose from the teen’s to the 20’s, then slowly and steadily rose to the 30’s, then the 40’s. The bone marrow transplant was put on hold. His blood count continued to go up. Joe’s doctor was amazed. He told Joe, “It’s not supposed to be happening.” Joe recalls how the doctor looked at him, smiled and said, “but we know why it is.”
“I don’t know if some medicine I’d taken in the past had finally kicked in, that’s a possibility,” Joe told me. “But, I believe I was healed as a witness to those who don’t know Jesus. The scripture I held on was where Paul asked God to remove the thorn from his side. God’s message was ‘my grace is sufficient’. That’s what I held on to. His grace is sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Joe continued, “When people start going through hard times, sometimes they miss opportunities the Lord has for them to share with others.” He talks about meeting a nurse at one of his treatments. He had on a tee-shirt that said ‘Rock of Ages’. She asked if that was the name of his church. She was a ‘biker chick’ and a single mom. The next appointment, Joe brought her a CD produced by his band, RU.
Another time, Joe met someone at a doctor’s appoint who asked him, “How can you be playing blues and singing about Jesus?”
Joe told them, “Blues is a style of music. It’s a series of chord progressions. A lot of blues songs are about ‘my wife left me, they re-po’ed my house, even my dog hates me.’ What’s the solution? Drinking? Sleeping Around? We sing about Jesus as the solution. We don’t sing about Jack, as in Jack Daniels, we sing about Jesus.” Later, Ace wrote a song about the conversation, which included the line, “I don’t know Jack (Daniels), but I know Jesus!”.
As his blood count went up, the doctor weened Joe off of Prednisone. Joe began taking short hikes, getting his weight down and slowly regained strength. Now, Joe is doing what he has always wanted to do – playing music. He’s still playing on the worship team at Calvary Chapel North Phoenix, and the Christian Motorcycle Association. Of course, Karmann and Kompany keeps him pretty busy, as well. RU broke up in 2011, but Joe and Ace remain good friends.
Through it all, Joe has grown closer to the Lord. “Who else am I going to depend on? The doctors do what they do. They cut and paste, but God does the healing.” People still come up to Joe and tell him, “I remember when we were praying for you!” Joe’s pastor thinks that the Lord wanted Joe out of the post office. “If he wanted me out of there, he kind of picked the hard way to tell me,” Joe says, laughing.
The experience has changed Joe. He prays that some one else might be changed by reading his story, then be moved to share it with others. He wants people to know that God still works miracles and he’s living proof.