NEWPORT — There was headaches and fatigue and tunnel vision and nausea. Symptoms that mimic so much, particularly concussions. That was Donovan Kurt’s initial diagnosis nearly eight months ago — post-concussion syndrome.

But this was no concussion. It was a brain tumor, a glioblastoma, a stubborn, aggressive and mean tumor that has a way of coming back even with the best treatment.

Kurt, a Nokomis Regional High School senior, faced many questions, uncertainty and, ultimately, surgery to remove the tumor from the back of his head.

Months removed from surgery, Kurt’s latest MRI came back clean. The cancer that left him bedridden and in pain last winter is gone. So the Nokomis senior is on the field with his soccer team. Kurt is a captain and is committed to leading his team through this season abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yeah, the tumor might come back. Life is full of mights and what ifs. Kurt is concerned with right now.

“The thought hits my mind every once in a while, but I have no control if it’s going to come back. So why think about it?” Kurt said. “There’s no point in focusing on it, because I have no control over it. I’ve just got to live my life.”

Late in the first half of an Oct. 27 game at Skowhegan, Kurt — a center back — headed the ball to himself, gaining a few steps on an incoming River Hawk defender before kicking the ball out of bounds. It was a small play, but it gave the Nokomis defense time to regroup and get into position. There was nothing flashy about the play. It was just a workmanlike effort.

It’s that same no-nonsense approach Kurt takes to his fight against cancer.

“He is very positive and amazes me every day.  He has never once complained. We continue to do chemo and try to focus on the positive but he is not out of the woods yet,” Trisha Kurt, Donovan’s mother, wrote in an e-mail.

Missing school with headaches that kept him in bed for entire days, Kurt went to the emergency room of Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield last January. He was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home with medication. Kurt spoke to Robert Kreider, the athletic trainer at Nokomis, who didn’t think Kurt had a concussion, but for a month, Donovan felt pretty good.

His friends still knew something wasn’t right. Ryan Bell, who has played soccer alongside Kurt since they were in fifth grade, didn’t see outgoing, friendly Donovan. Kurt was sleepy and sluggish in school.

“Ryan goes to school with him every day. Last year, the beginning of junior year, I transferred to Waterville from Nokomis,” said Lindsey Cote, Kurt’s longtime friend. “Donovan and I, we still talked every day. He’d send me pictures, and he’d always be laying in bed, or he was sick. He was throwing up a lot. It was really hard to see him go through that. I knew there might have been something really wrong, or it was a more severe concussion than he’d had in the past.”

 

BOSTON-BOUND

 

When the cancer diagnosis came March 10, things happened quickly.

An MRI revealed the tumor. Mike Kurt remembers the message he received from his wife: You need to call right now. Trisha Kurt rode with Donovan in the ambulance to Boston, with Mike following in his car. He drove, and he thought of his son. Seventeen years of memories played in his head, including coaching Donovan in youth soccer, and bringing him to soccer camp at Nokomis when Donovan was 5. Mike got the initial call from Trisha at 4:30 in the afternoon. They were in Boston at Mass General Hospital at 10:30 that evening.

“The worst things are going through your mind. She said they found a tumor. She was having all she could do to keep her emotions in check. Me, too, once she told me,” Mike Kurt said.

“It was shocking. My emotions didn’t really get to me until I was at Boston. At that point, I figured, it’s already happened. You’ve got to live with it and worry about what’s next instead of what happened. I kind of looked forward after that,” Donovan added.

Two days later, on March 12, Donovan had surgery to remove the tumor. Because glioblastoma tumors grow aggressively, Donovan’s surgeons knew they needed to get most, if not all, of the tumor removed. The surgery to remove the tumor whole took 10 hours.

Glioblastomas are among the fastest growing brain tumors, according to the American Cancer Society.

Nokomis senior back Donovan Kurt, right, passes the ball during an Oct. 27 game at Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It was about the size of a potato,” Mike Kurt said, balling his left hand into a fist to demonstrate the approximate size of the tumor. “That’s how the neurosurgeon described it to us. It’s highly cancerous. The rate of it coming back is huge…He’s cancer free right now, but the biggest thing is, they’re trying to keep it at bay and keep it from coming back.”

Donovan said doctors don’t know what caused his tumor. It’s bad luck that just happened. In the days following Donovan’s surgery, Mass General’s staff began to focus on another threat, the coronavirus pandemic.

“They were trying to get him healthy enough so you could come home and recuperate. They were trying to get us out of there and back up here. Every day, the hospital was changing. As a matter of fact, the only reason they were allowing both my wife and I there was because we were from Maine. We had no place to go,” Mike Kurt said.

In Maine, Donovan’s friends were looking for information. As she chatted with friends at the end of her swim team’s season-ending banquet, Cote’s parents ushered her to the car so they could give her the news that Donovan was in Boston for surgery and treatment. Bell got the news from his mother, and after the initial shock, he thought of all the symptoms his friend has displayed over the last few months, and it made sense.

“It was hard to focus, because Donovan has always been there for me, and with the pandemic I couldn’t be there for him. It was so hard,” Cote said. “It was a while (before seeing Donovan), two weeks to a month after he got home, because his immune system was compromised.”

 

ROAD TO RECOVERY

 

When he started to feel better in the weeks following his surgery, Donovan set to work getting ready for the soccer season. His aunt, Amie Descheneaux, a physical therapist in Connecticut, came to Maine and created a training routine for Donovan. Exercises with a medicine ball, climbing stairs, and balance drills, to start. After Descheneaux went home to Connecticut, she and Donovan would have weekly FaceTime meetings, and she made adjustments as he got stronger.

And Donovan got stronger quickly. When he was in Boston for chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Donovan would run along the Charles River; maybe a mile, maybe two. He had a goal.

“His goal from Day 1 was to get back playing soccer, which is his passion,” Trisha Kurt said.

Donovan’s chemotherapy now comes in a pill he takes at home. He takes the pill at 9 p.m., which means he cannot eat after 7. His treatment regimen is five days of chemo a month for 12 months. His last round of treatment ended the week of Oct. 23.

“I was in school that whole week. I had a couple games. Honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t affected me at all. I’ve been living,” he said.

Donovan and his family have received support from the Newport community. Cote and Brianna Townsend, Donovan’s cousin, designed and sold t-shirts, sweatshirts, and bracelets. With the pandemic making a benefit dinner impossible, Donovan’s aunt Penny Townsend opened an account at a local bank so people could make donations. Kidsville, the daycare Donovan attended as a child, raised money through a hopathon. Cote estimated they raised $10,000. Trisha Kurt emphasized that these examples are just a portion of the support the family has received.

Nokomis senior captain Donovan Kurt, center, walks with his teammates back to the field after a break in action during an Oct. 27 game in Skowhegan. Kurt had a brain tumor removed from the back of his head in March, and was then cleared to lead the Warriors in mid-September. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Early in his recovery, Donovan’s doctors told him a return to soccer was an achievable goal. Because the tumor had been in the back left corner of his brain, heading the ball off his forehead shouldn’t be an issue, they said. Be smart about it, they said. Work on foot skills first. A concern was field cuts, a partial blindness in a certain direction common in brain surgery patients. Donovan’s field cuts has been to the upper right of both eyes, but he said it’s improving. For a soccer player, who needs peripheral vision down and to the sides, this is a best-case scenario. It also allows Donovan to drive. Where it may prove a problem is baseball season, where it could make judging fly balls in center field tougher.

“It’s been easy to compensate for that,” Donovan said.

Donovan was cleared for contact in mid-September, a few weeks before the season began.

“He’s been doing great. He’s extremely strong, for what he’s gone through, both physically and mentally. He was one of our captains last year, and we’re thankful he’s able to fill one of those roles this year as well,” Nokomis boys soccer coach Mike Umbrianna said. “He’s just a great leader out on the field. I think the boys kind of gain some strength knowing what he’s come through, knowing they can fight through anything.”

Umbrianna said he was a little surprised when Donovan told him he’d be ready to go Sept. 18 — not because he doubted his captain’s resolve, but rather because he said it as if it was a matter of fact, settled law, and the doctor’s opinion would be an afterthought. I’ll be cleared, Donovan said. I will.

“To watch him throughout the process, you wouldn’t have known to look at him he was struggling through cancer treatments. He’s still strong in stature, smiling. It’s just been amazing,” Umbrianna said.

 

UNWAVERED DETERMINATION

 

Ryan Martin, the boys basketball coach at Nokomis, remembered a game last winter at Medomak Valley in Waldoboro, a 90-minute drive each way for the Warriors and the longest bus ride the team has for a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference game. Despite his illness, Donovan made the trip.

“He really wanted to be there for his team. He was adamant he was getting on that bus to Medomak Valley,” Martin said, adding Donovan brought that same desire to excel and challenge himself to Martin’s world and U.S. history classes. “You just love to be around somebody like that. It’s contagious.”

Donovan returned to the Warriors lineup in a game at Maine Central Institute.

“I was excited. I looked at it like, I feel really healthy so it didn’t really bother me. The only struggle for me is, something I get scared to head the ball off punts, just because it’s coming down with so much force,” Donovan said.

Aside from a collision with another player in a recent game, Donovan’s return has been seamless. He left that game as a precautionary measure.

“When he went down last week, it was the first time other than when I coached him I had to go out on the field. We usually don’t. We let the trainer do his thing,” Mike Kurt said. “The only time we get nervous is when they’re competing for a ball in the air. We also know, this is what he loves to do, and you can’t hide. You’ve still got to try to find a way to persevere and live life.”

Nokomis senior back Donovan Kurt, center, takes the ball downfield during an Oct. 27 game at Skowhegan. Kurt had a brain tumor removed from the back of his head in March, and was then cleared to lead the Warriors in mid-September. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“He’s been with the team, even before he was cleared. I mean, he’s the captain of our team. He was supporting us even when he couldn’t play, doing as much as he could from the sidelines,” added Bell, who also plays with Donovan for Central Maine United, a club team based in Waterville. “He was almost a second coach, really. Having him back on the field now, it’s taking it that extra step. He’s the backbone of our team.”

Now, Donovan is playing basketball and getting ready for his next season. Beyond high school, Donovan would like to study architecture. He’s looking at colleges in New England, including Norwich University in Vermont.

“He’s always had a great attitude about it, a great spirit about it. That’s helped everyone, and his mother and I, deal with it,” Mike Kurt said. “He’s very bright. He’s always been very smart. He’s not a negative person, anyway. Most things, he’s been positive about it.”

The entire family is focused on the recent positive news, but Trisha Kurt stressed Donovan is not out of the woods yet. This is a long fight. Glioblastoma doesn’t fight fair, but in Donovan Kurt, it has an opponent who fights hard.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242
Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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