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Cancer-stricken Ostrom is Diablos' inspiration
MISSION VIEJO – David Ostrom doesn’t need to look far in his room at Mission Hospital to be reminded of his decision that left some in Orange County’s water polo community astonished.
On a counter near his bed sits a red- and yellow-colored water polo ball covered with signatures from Mission Viejo High’s boys team.
“It’s nice to wake up to that every single day,” he said Saturday afternoon during a visit in the third-floor lounge at Mission Hospital.
“It just reminds you of the support out there and the team.”
Ostrom, 25, served as a volunteer boys water polo coach at Mission Viejo, his alma mater, until complications from a rare form of potentially terminal cancer sent him to the hospital in late August.
And while Ostrom coached the Diablos for only a few weeks, his decision to give back to his sport and community during a time of personal difficulty left a lasting impression.
“I don’t know if I have that willpower,” said second-year Mission Viejo coach Jeff Rach, who recently delivered the signed ball to Ostrom on behalf of the water polo program.
“But for him to just want to give back and spread the love of the sport that he has, and what it did for him to get him to college and all that kind of stuff, I think it’s unbelievable.”
Water polo took Ostrom from Mission Viejo High to the Air Force Academy, where he played from 2006-09. After graduating from the academy, he joined the brotherhood and cockpits of military aviation.
He was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska when his promising ascent to becoming a reconnaissance pilot suddenly was grounded.
Ostrom had been an ultra-fit water polo goalie at Air Force and was still in good physical condition in December when he felt severe pain in his side.
After undergoing tests, he was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma, an aggressive cancer that starts at the adrenal gland.
In May, a grim prognosis was delivered. During his trek home to Mission Viejo, a doctor at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco told Ostrom that he could have six months to a year to live.
Ostrom read the prognosis in his paperwork and listened to the doctor but felt disbelief.
“You definitely don’t believe it,” he said. “I definitely don’t think this is the end. … Just don’t listen to other people and keep pushing.”
Ostrom did that once he returned to Mission Viejo for chemotherapy treatments, which began in June. With his career as an active first lieutenant in the Air Force seemingly over, he began thinking about water polo and how much he missed the sport.
He also thought about helping the program at Mission Viejo High, just a few minutes from his parents’ home, where he now resides.
So on July 30, he sent a message to an ex-teammate at Mission Viejo via Facebook.
The ex-classmate Ostrom turned to was John Devine.
Ostrom spotted Devine’s name listed as an assistant coach on the school’s water polo website. He sent Devine a message on Facebook with the hopes of landing a coaching gig with the Diablos.
As a senior in 2005, Ostrom helped the Mission Viejo water polo team end El Toro’s 33-match winning streak in the South Coast League and claim the league title.
A gifted athlete, Ostrom also pitched on the varsity baseball team as a senior.
Devine gave Ostrom contact information for Rach, who quickly welcomed Ostrom and helped him get cleared to coach.
“I realized that I wanted to help people,” Ostrom said. “I thought it would be a nice help to (teach players to) really get the basics down.”
He first pushed through chemotherapy. The sessions were grueling. He experienced nausea and extreme fatigue afterward.
But in mid-August, about 10 days removed from his final chemotherapy session, he arrived for his first practice with the Diablos.
And just like the players, the former Air Force team MVP entered the pool with his brief-style swim suit, which hardly hid the trauma of his journey.
There was the patch on his chest to cover his intravenous chemotherapy port. There was a nearly 15-inch scar across his abdomen from a cancer surgery. And his hair was thinning from the chemotherapy.
Ostrom noted that his belly was bloated, too, but none of that mattered. He wanted the players to know the “full effect” of his story.
He was able to tread water briefly but mostly floated on a ball while training the goalies.
Rach stopped the first practice so Ostrom could talk to the players. Weeks later, they remained impressed.
“Instead of just spending his last couple months to live in bed-rest, he’s giving back to a sport that really gave a lot back to him,” senior captain Zach Gleason said.
“It takes a lot of courage for someone to do that. Even when he’s not feeling 100 percent, just coming down, helping whenever he can, it means a lot to us.”
“He’s a good coach,” said freshman goalie Harrison Kelley, who showed improvement after training with Ostrom. “It’s really brave of him to help out with something he (loves), water polo.”
A NEEDED ESCAPE
While Ostrom reached out to Mission Viejo, he also reaped his own benefits from his decision.
His venture into water polo coaching gave him a needed escape from thinking about the rigors of his fight against cancer. There are times when he loses his train of thought while talking or needs to lay on his back to rest.
But Ostrom said he felt good at his last water polo practice, which was Aug. 26. He was, however, admitted to the hospital later that day.
“It kind of gets your mind off the whole situation,” he said of water polo. “When I came back (to Mission Viejo), I wanted to do something that I knew that I would enjoy.”
Since being hospitalized, tests have shown that the cancer has spread and, Ostrom said, he’s also battling a staph infection, liver disease and blood clots.
Despite the life-threatening circumstances, he remains surprisingly upbeat, to the point that he cracks jokes. He is well-supported by his family, friends and his loyal service dog, Sophie, a tiny, white Maltese Schnauzer.
He seems to encounter a steady flow of visitors and enjoys diversions such as the family’s fantasy football league.
As for the next medical move, Ostrom’s wife, Whitney, is helping to research clinical trials for cancer treatment. There’s been talk of joining a clinical trial in Houston.
“Miracles can happen,” said Ostrom’s mother, Laura. “We have a lot of fight left in us.”
Ostrom also has been buoyed by his fellow Air Force pilots. Bryan Holtz, one of Ostrom’s friends from the academy, designed T-shirts with the phrase “#brostrong” across the chest as a fundraiser.
There are pictures on Facebook pages of the pilots wearing the shirts under their flight suits during stops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.
Friends and family have raised more than $8,000 to send Ostrom and Whitney, his wife since May, on a trip.
“The support has been amazing,” Ostrom said.
Ever the giver, though, he adds, “I feel bad that I haven’t been able to reciprocate.”
Ostrom would like to return to coaching at Mission Viejo, though he said he likely won’t be getting back in the water.
“I’m definitely going to go to a couple games when I get out of here,” he said. “Try to help out as much as I can.”
But no matter what happens, the Mission Viejo players and coaches already let Ostrom know what his decision to coach meant to them.
The Diablos placed the signed ball in a clear case with a small, silver plaque that reads, “Coach Ostrom 2013 Diablos’ Season Inspiration.”
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