Dustin Ebeltoft's team was brainstorming ideas for costumes and funny hats when he pitched the obvious: toilet hats. ¶ That's what the team would wear when they pitched a Rube Goldberg-esque toilet scrubber invention to the judges in a state tournament of Odyssey of the Mind. ¶ The 11-year-old quickly sketched out his ideas as he waited to be admitted at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and get hooked up to tubes for another round of chemotherapy.
He held up his sketches to his laptop camera so his teammates who were meeting 30 miles away at Trinity Elementary School in Pasco County could see them via Skype.
"We miss you!" Kendra Hoffman and Emma Book occasionally intoned, prompting Dustin to smile and share silly cartoons of a Pac-Man eating a chicken.
Dustin's mom, Kim George, calls Odyssey of the Mind a blessing. The problem-solving program invites thousands of students from all over the world to offer creative solutions to a problem and then compete with their answer in regional and state tournaments.
"It's one of the best things for him," George said. "That's kind of what keeps him going."
In January, doctors discovered that Dustin had Ewing's sarcoma, a relatively rare cancerous tumor limited mainly to children. The primary treatment is chemotherapy and radiation.
Dustin's aggressive eight-month schedule takes him out of school frequently and has curtailed many of his activities, such as his favorite sport of soccer.
But the gifted student who loves to read fantasy books and thinks about becoming an architect refuses to give up on Odyssey.
"I really like the spontaneous," Dustin said, referring to the part of the competition when students must creatively answer questions they've never heard before.
Dustin can't do without the team. And the team can't do without him, their acknowledged idea man. So when he can't attend, they Skype him in.
"He can't build anything," teammate Shiva Murali said. "But other than that, it's just like he's here."
Teacher-coach Susan Schultz praised Dustin for sticking with school and Odyssey. His treatments were scheduled so he could attend the regional competition and the state event, too.
"A lot of kids, they would have just stopped coming to school," Schultz said. "He comes to school as much as he possibly can. Plus he does this. He wants to be involved despite how sick he is. To me, that's just inspiring."
Dustin's team, which also includes Julia Walkup, Morgan Bombei and Sierra Schultz, nominated him for a regional award, given to the event's most inspirational participant.
Dustin won, but initially he was more focused with his team's third-place medal at regionals and the chance to compete at state. Then he realized he had been singled out.
"I really wasn't expecting it," Dustin said. "But when I did get it, it was really good, because I did it. I am kind of proud of myself that I made it this far."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614.