Nebraska farmer struggles with loss of sight

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BRUNO, Neb. (AP) — Mike Ostry is proud that for more than two decades, when his children brought him lunch in the field behind their house, he could hop off his 1970s-era John Deere tractor, sit with them in the dirt surrounded by organic corn and know the grains he sowed would buy their clothes and keep them fed.

"We always thought we could take care of ourselves," the 52-year-old farmer told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1izrSob ).

But the life he built with his wife and their 11 children on 372 acres just east of Bruno in Butler County has been upended by tumors in Mike's brain that robbed him of his sight and balance and are threatening to take his livelihood.

Mike and his wife, Karen, married in 1988, bought land a year later from his father and named it Wagon Wheel Farm.

"Years ago, it had 300 wagon wheels making up fences around the yard," Mike said.

Those first few years were lean. Karen taught at East Butler Schools in Brainard to finish her education degree, then later at the Bruno elementary school, which since has closed. When Karen got pregnant with their first child, who was born in 1989, she decided to stay home. She home-schooled all their children.

Mike worked in the field, where he spread fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides along with his seeds.

The farm just broke even, and he worried about the chemicals and the effect they could have on his children, now 3 to 24 years old.

Farmers had produced for generations without the chemicals, so Mike figured he could, too. And the organic label brought a premium price.

Today, the Ostry family makes weekly trips to Lincoln to drop off feed and has customers throughout the region, including the Carmelite monastery near Valparaiso.

Mike felt run down the past few years, but he chalked it up to age and stress.

Then in September, the headaches started.

"It was like a bunch of nails in my head, right around the cap line," Mike said. "They would throb.

"I cut back and slowed down and kept getting headaches," Mike said.

On Feb. 10 he had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Doctors did a brain scan and then sent him by helicopter to Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Mike had brain tumors.

Surgeons took out 80 percent of the main tumor, which they believed to be non-cancerous, and left Mike with 17 staples running up the back of his head. They hope to remove the rest of it and a second tumor near his left ear, but first he must heal and regain his strength.

His first post-surgery memory Mike has is of having a CT scan done — and realizing he was blind. Doctors told him there is a chance his sight could return, but it could be months or years.

Twelve days after the seizure, he got to go home.

Mike's making the best of his situation, he said recently while sitting in a padded chair next to a corded telephone in the living room.

"I can feed myself, as long as someone fills my plate," Mike said.

Gabriella, 5, added: "But he asks whether his plate is clean."

He spends a lot of time on the phone now, making seed orders and chatting with friends.

"I can do the talking," he said. "As long as someone dials the number."

With their father unable to drive a tractor or run the family's old red International combine, his children are caring for the farm and are looking forward to planting.

But Mike worries. He didn't have health insurance. And, like most farmers, he has debt.

"That is probably the bigger challenge of my predicament — debt," he said.

But another challenge is yet to come: spring, and having to sit in his chair next to the phone while his sons and daughters plant the rows.

"I'm not an indoor person. I like being outdoors on a tractor," Mike said.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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