Doctor helps disadvantaged children through charity, running

By Kathy Day

Running his personal best of 1:48.21 in the recent Carlsbad Half Marathon put a smile on Carmel Valley physician Greg Ostrow’s face.

But he said he wasn’t quite as pleased with himself in terms of his fundraising efforts for his favorite charity, Fresh Start Surgical Gifts.

In an interview in his Carmel Valley office before the race, he said he wished he could have raised more money for the nonprofit that provides reconstructive surgery and other healthcare services for disadvantaged children.

He gathered about $400 in donations, but one of the “heroes” of the Fresh Start team that ran in the Carlsbad event raised about $5,000, he said.

“It’s sad — they are horrible cases … but we do a good job and it feels good” to help them, he said.

A pediatric ophthalmologist, Ostrow has been involved with Fresh Start since 2009 when a friend asked him to volunteer because they didn’t have anyone in his specialty working with the organization. Since then he’s served on its medical board and last year became a board member — and he has provided more than $50,000 in donated care and a number of surgeries.

“I see on average one Fresh Start kid a week in my office for various eye exams and treatments, and only a small percentage go on to surgery,” he noted in an e-mail. Many have issues that can be corrected with glasses, exercises, patching or other treatments.

The most recent case involved Karla, a 6-year-old born with a tumor that blocked her vision and made her unable to lift her eyelid. Called neurofibromatosis, the disorder is genetically inherited and causes tumors – usually benign — to grow throughout the body. Karla’s family had a limited income, was uninsured and unable to find a specialist who would care for her so they sought help from Fresh Start.

With patients around the world who are either actively in the program or being considered, Carlsbad-based Fresh Start not only provides the care but also transportation, food, housing and medications, Ostrow noted.

“The staff, nurses and doctors work for free,” he said, adding that Rady Children’s Hospital gives them operating room space. But the expendables and fixed costs must be covered by donations.

“We love volunteers and we love donations,” he continued. “Our overhead is low – everything goes to the children.”

Ostrow and his wife, Stacy – a dermatologist who also works at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley – have two daughters, Alexis, 4, and Sydney, 7. Originally he had planned to practice in Buffalo, N.Y. where he was raised and went to medical school at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine, but Stacy – a Los Angeles native – convinced him to move to California, he said.

Both of them have relatives who are physicians – his dad, a pathologist, was dean of the SUNY medical school -- and his brother and sister practice at Johns Hopkins. Stacy’s grandfather, who practiced at UCLA, was well known in the field of dermatopathology.

Although he had planned to specialize in neurosurgery, he said he found the rewards greater in pediatric ophthalmology.

“I like kids – I’m kind of a kid myself,” he said. “I get to play all day and I learn jokes to tell my daughters.”

In addition to his work at Scripps, he is an editor for International Ophthalmology Clinics and has written portions of several books, including a chapter on The Pediatric Eye Exam in “Harley’s Pediatric Ophthalmology.” A dedicated researcher, he is an investigator for the NIH-funded Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group (PEDIG), according to the Scripps Clinic website.

It’s apparent he likes his work — and he also likes sports. In fact, he said, every several years he picks a new one to tackle. He surfs, snowboards and climbs mountains, but his current passion is long-distance running. This year’s goal, which he’s out to achieve with friends, is what he called the “Triple Crown.” That’s three local half marathons: Carlsbad, La Jolla and America’s Finest City. As if that’s not enough, in the fall he and a group of other doctors and friends will do a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run at the Grand Canyon.

After that, he said, he may give triathlons a try although “ocean swimming is an issue.”

When he’s not thinking about sports or work — or how to raise more money for Fresh Start – Ostrow may be found in the kitchen.

A gourmet chef who particularly likes making sushi, he said he does all the cooking at home.

“My mom had a gourmet food store,” he said. “We all had to work there. … On Jan. 1 every year, we brought home all the left over caviar and foie gras and had great parties at our house.”

He also maintains a sustainable organic garden at home, where he shares gardening tips with his girls and they’re putting in a chicken coop “now that it’s legal to keep chickens in the county.”

Seafood is a particular menu favorite, which takes him regularly to Catalina Offshore Products.

Not so shyly, he said he makes a mean black cod dish — “better than Nobu’s.”