NEWPORT, Maine — A chilling drizzle and temperatures in the upper 30s weren’t the optimum conditions for soccer practice at Nokomis Regional High School late Monday afternoon.
But senior center back Donovan Kurt seemed oblivious to the uncomfortable weather as he sped his way through ball-control drills while preparing for Tuesday’s game at Skowhegan.
His energy shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The 17-year-old son of Mike and Trisha Kurt of Newport is just happy to be playing 7 1/2 months after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain.
“I didn’t really know what my timeline was going to be at that time,” said Kurt, a three-sport athlete who also plays basketball and baseball at Nokomis as well as club soccer for Central Maine United of Waterville. “I was just hoping there was a timeline where I could be playing again.”
Clockwise from left: Nokomis senior Donovan Kurt talks about receiving treatment for a brain tumor while being interviewed at his high school on Oct. 26; Donovan (right) puts on his soccer cleats alongside his brother Braden before practice; Donovan Kurt (right) does practice drills; Donovan (left) and his father, Mike, talk about the treatment Donovan received; Donovan goes to strike the ball during a drill at a rainy soccer practice. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
While Kurt is still undergoing chemotherapy, he has played every minute of the Warriors’ games this fall. His leadership role as a second-year captain is evident, even during practices in the rain.
“With the process he’s been through and the health issues, you really can’t tell that he had brain cancer and has gone through all the treatments because he’s still strong and positive,” Nokomis coach Mike Umbrianna said. “He hasn’t changed.”
Change came in a bad way early in January when Kurt woke up during the middle of the night throwing up and with severe head pain. The original diagnoses centered on concussion-like symptoms and migraine headaches.
“In school he was falling asleep, he was really not himself, and Donovan is a really good student so we knew something was up,” teammate Ryan Bell said. “At the same time, we just thought he had a concussion because he had symptoms.”
Kurt attended school throughout February — despite developing blurry tunnel vision — until he returned to the emergency room on March 10 after waking up with the same symptoms.
This time he was asked about his vision issues, which led to a magnetic resonance test. It revealed glioblastoma, a malignant tumor that Kurt described as the size of a potato, in the left side of his brain.
“It was growing in one of my fluid sacs and it was growing so big that it was stretching my vision bands. That’s why I was getting blurry vision,” he said.
By 10:30 that night Kurt and his family were at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor ensued on March 12.
“It hit me harder than I thought it would,” Kurt said of the diagnosis. “But it was at that point where it had happened and I had to move forward because there was nothing I could do about it.”
He was hospitalized for 10 days, the first week in intensive care.
Kurt started walking after five days, and though he initially struggled on his own he did improve, leading to a decisive test that required him to climb stairs without assistance in order to be released from the hospital.
“I barely passed those stairs and they sent me home, which was a little shocking,” Kurt said. “I figured I’d be there a couple more days, but they were right in saying you’re going to progress a lot more at home.”
Kurt was aided in that effort by his aunt Amie Descheneaux, a physical therapist who lives in Connecticut. She came to Maine and developed a daily training regimen for him that they updated via FaceTime as he gained strength.
“She did an amazing job,” Kurt said. “I was up on my feet running and throwing medicine balls within a week.”
He remained home for the next month to continue gaining strength for his next treatment, a six-week combination of radiation and chemotherapy.
Sent off by a long parade of supporters along Route 7 — one of many acts of kindness the family appreciated during Kurt’s illness — he left for Boston in early May to begin 42 straight days of taking chemotherapy pills and 30 days of radiation treatments.
“It definitely was taxing,” he said. “I wasn’t sick. I was mostly tired and I wasn’t really tired until the last couple of weeks.”
Kurt still found time to work on his physical conditioning, running several times a week along the Charles River.
“Some days he would run two miles and some days it may have only been a mile but he tried hard to stay in shape,” Trisha Kurt said. “His goal from day one was to get back playing soccer, which is his passion.”
Kurt continues his chemotherapy from home on a more limited basis, taking treatments for five consecutive days once each month after visiting the Lafayette Cancer Center in Brewer for blood work before each treatment week.
It’s a schedule he must continue for seven more months.
“The concern is obviously that it will come back,” Mike Kurt said. “It’s a very aggressive form of cancer. The good news is it hasn’t come back yet and people of his age do better than most groups with it.”
Donovan also returns to Boston every three months for a checkup. His most recent visit in September produced what he described as perfect results.
“I pretty much live how I normally would, even with the chemo,” he said.
Kurt was given the OK to play soccer a couple of weeks before the start of the season, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then it’s been business as usual on the pitch — including headers.
“I got cleared to head the ball before I was cleared for physical contact because the scars are in the back of the head,” he said. “You head the ball with your forehead so I was actually cleared to head the ball about a month before I was officially cleared. The only thing I’ve been really cautious about is headers off punts.”
Kurt has moved this fall from center midfield, a position he had played since fifth grade, to defense. That’s a strategic move for the team rather than a concession to his health.
He has made a concession to a different illness that he hasn’t contracted, the coronavirus.
“I’ve felt great, and I haven’t had the headaches, which is really great,” he said. “The only thing that’s different is the facemask. I feel normal besides the mask.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Mike Kurt. It has been corrected.