Meridian coach faces cancer in life’s biggest battle

His family, community, and two district schools line up in support

broberts@idahostatesman.comJanuary 24, 2014 

  • NICOLE INGERSOLL’S BLOG

    Jan. 9

    “We received almost the worst news possible today. Zach was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. We are looking at prolonging and maintaining his quality of life for as long as possible. ... The saving grace that keeps (the doctor) from saying Zach is not curable is the cancer has not spread to the liver, lungs or the brain. ”

    Jan. 13

    “There are a lot of things I love about Zach. He is the perfect travel companion — up for exploring and loves to eat his way through any city we visit, just like me. He is also my Netflix buddy. We’ve spent countless hours glued to the TV, shaking with anticipation as we queue up the next episode. I won’t list all of the fabulous shows we have watched over the years — you might wonder how we ever got anything else done! I am blessed that Zach supports our dream for me to be mommy, CFO, culinary director and Maid Lily for our household. Zach has worked hard to give us this opportunity. Zach loves Jesus, has a tender heart and is a fantastic dad.

    “The thought of him not being a part of our lives for years to come is almost too much to bear. So he just has to beat this stupid cancer. I know he wants the same thing too.”

Eagle and Rocky Mountain high schools will meet this Saturday in basketball games that showcase their spirited rivalry. But while folks in the stands cheer for their own teams, they’ll also stand together to cheer on one of their own.

Zach Ingersoll, 34, the junior varsity coach at Rocky Mountain and a history teacher and football coach at Eagle, is fighting a tough case of esophageal cancer — a diagnosis less than a month old.

Nearly 1,000 people from both schools have purchased $10 student-designed T-shirts that on one side read “PFI” — People for Ingersoll. On the other side is the word “Believe.” Students, parents and coaches plan to wear the shirts Saturday.

Students also will be able to pay $5 to get their heads shaved in support of Ingersoll, who will be losing his own hair from chemotherapy treatments. And some faculty members have agreed to go under the electric trimmers for every $100 that is contributed.

All the proceeds will go to Ingersoll and his wife, Nicole, 33, and their two children, Oliver, 2, and Max, 3 months.

“He puts all his effort into making you try to be the best,” said Ryan Chism, 16, who plays safety on Eagle’s football team and has had Ingersoll as a teacher.

Ingersoll grew up in Boise and graduated from Capital High School. After graduating with a history degree from Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and getting a master’s degree from Boise State University, he got a job in 2006 as a teacher and football coach at Eagle High.

When Rocky Mountain opened in 2008, he went there to coach basketball and football and teach history. He returned to Eagle in 2012 but kept the junior varsity coaching job at Rocky Mountain.

He didn’t think much of the occasional stomach discomfort he’d experienced in recent months.

“I was around kids, so I just assumed I was fighting a stomach flu or eating poorly, not washing fruit,” he said.

By October, the pressure around his gut was intense.

“I made changes to my diet, staying away from caffeine and minimum alcohol,” he said. “I couldn’t even have a single beer.”

He went for an examination in December. In a single, bleak week in January, he got the news over several days that he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer.

“There is no Stage 5,” Ingersoll said.

Doctors told him that it was an aggressive cancer that shows few symptoms and that he had likely had it for 12 to 18 months. They traced it to acid reflux that he has had since he was a child. People with acid reflux are more prone to the cancer, he said.

TELLING HIS STUDENTS

When school resumed after the winter break, Ingersoll told his students about his cancer. They asked questions, such as whether he would have to have surgery.

Josh Rasmussen, a 17-year-old Rocky Mountain junior, texted: “Are you afraid of dying?”

Ingersoll said no.

“The only thing that made me feel bad is the thought of missing out on watching my kids grow up,” said Ingersoll, who attends Eagle Christian Church with his family, in a reply text. “I know where I am headed.”

CHANGES AT HOME

Ingersoll is off work for the next few months as he goes through treatments, although he said he intends to go back to school on days when he feels good.

Nicole Ingersoll, a stay-at-home mom, keeps careful watch. She prods her husband to eat — his appetite is all but gone. Even downing part of a favorite Costco blueberry muffin is a chore.

“She lectured me yesterday, flat-out told me I wasn’t getting the job done in eating, and she was 100 percent right,” he said. “She’s always right. She’s undefeated.”

GOD AND A BLOG

“God is getting me through this,” Nicole Ingersoll said. “There are teary moments and there are scary times.”

She’s found a way to deal with them through a daily blog she began in early January. The blog has received 25,000 hits.

“I felt like I had so much to say,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to talk to people over the phone, and I didn’t want to do it over texting. It’s a way for me to process everything that happens during the day.”

The name of the blog speaks to the couple’s determination to fight: “Cancer: Game On.”

Here’s an entry about a trip this week to the emergency room: “Zach’s stomach cramping started last night. After a sleepless night and severe cramping we thought it best to go to the ER. My mom came over early this morning to watch the little boys. Thankfully Zach is fine now, although we don’t have any firm answers as to what was causing his abdominal pain. Most likely the culprit is the cancer in his lymph nodes that are behind his stomach. We met a couple of wonderful St. Luke’s employees who recognized Zach from the blog. It amazes us how so many people who we don’t even know are pulling for us!”

KIDS TAKE ACTION

A few months earlier, Rasmussen and fellow Rocky Mountain basketball player Adam Petersen got the idea to print shirts during football season reading “Beat Eagle” and sell them to make some money.

When they heard their basketball coach was sick, they looked for ways to help. They got together with other students and used part of their business class to design a T-shirt to sell as a fundraiser.

“It kind of hit us pretty fast,” Rasmussen said. Within days, they had hundreds of orders.

“People care about what’s going on,” he said.

This is the coach who has worked with Petersen to stop dribbling after getting a rebound — a good way to lose the ball.

He’s the teacher who students say makes history relevant to their lives.

Not long ago, as students were studying the conditions George Washington’s troops encountered at Valley Forge, he invited his students to step outside on a chilly morning for a few moments sans coats just to get a feel for what those solders went through.

“It was kind of cool to see they stayed out there for four months and we were there for — what — three minutes?” said Daric Meyers, 16, an Eagle sophomore.

Students are helping the Ingersolls in other ways. Eagle cheerleaders are organizing teams to help with cleaning and baby-sitting. Faculty and staff members are helping with food.

“They want to be involved in something that matters,” Ingersoll said. “The best thing about it is that it does matter. Every little email, text message and phone call that I get makes a huge impact on my well-being.”

Ingersoll is looking for a way to show his support for the students. He plans to attend Saturday’s game. He’s planning to get his head shaved along with others.

“If it’s a show of solidarity, I want to be all in with that,” he said.

The junior varsity game is at 6 p.m. at Eagle High School, 574 N. Park Lane. The varsity game is at 7:30 p.m.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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