Elmira boy’s fight with leukemia had been taken up by friends, wider community
Elmira lost one of its most prominent young leaders when Austin Whittom died the morning of February 7 after a long battle with cancer. Whittom, only 13 when he succumbed to leukemia at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, became the leader of an anti-cancer crusade in his final months, with “Team Austin” events in the community raising thousands for charity.
“He was a quiet leader who led by his example,” said James Noonan, principal at St. Teresa of Avila school where Whittom attended. “He was a leader, he was a hero, and the world is a better place because he spent some time here.”
The news was announced in a post on the “Strength With Friends – Austin’s Journey” Facebook page, which added that Whittom was surrounded by loved ones and that his last words were, “I love you guys.”
Whittom’s passing came two days before the Elmira Sugar Kings were scheduled to hold their “Pink the Rink” hockey game to raise money for cancer charities. The opening ceremony became a tribute to Whittom, as local dignitaries (including MPP Michael Harris and Mayor Todd Cowan) took part in a moment of silence.
“We will forever remember Ozzie’s spirit, dedication, and courage,” said Matt Uhrig, one of Whittom’s teammates at Woolwich Minor Hockey, to the audience at the WMC.
“During his first week back at hockey after remission, Ozzie scored a hat trick,” added Justin Uhrig. “He had a bright smile that you would never see shine brighter than when he was doing what he loved best: playing hockey.”
Whittom was first diagnosed with leukemia when he was in Grade 6, and returned to school after intense treatment in November 2012. He lived a normal life for the rest of the school year, but was hit with a devastating blow when he was re-diagnosed in September 2013.
“His mom and he came in to see me about it, and he wanted his friends to know,” remembered Noonan. “I said, ‘I can let your class know and share that news with them,’ and he said, ‘No, I want to do it myself.’ For a young guy to stand in front of his classmates and let them know, ‘My cancer’s back but I’m going to fight it,’ and share that news openly, was just such an incredible sign of character.”
He spent his final months in and out of Sick Kids Hospital, enduring a bone marrow transplant in December. Meanwhile, “Team Austin” became a rallying cry. At St. Teresa, a December T-shirt sale raised $3,500, and a spaghetti dinner and silent auction followed January 19. “There was so much positive energy there, it was infectious,” said Noonan. “We just wish it had been a better result.”
Woolwich Minor Hockey also raised awareness, with a skate lace campaign that brought donations from across the Region, and “Team Austin” stickers that were handed out throughout the league.
“We just tried to show as much symbolic support as we could,” said Rob Waters, president of Woolwich Minor Hockey. “Throughout the year there were a lot of examples of how much Austin meant, and not just to our community.”
Whittom’s funeral took place on Wednesday at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Elmira. The “Strength With Friends – Austin’s Journey” page will continue as a memorial.