Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of Missoulian profiles of University of Montana students graduating Saturday.
The very next semester after University of Montana student Kurtis Brandt learned about oncology drugs in his pharmacy classes, the 23-year-old was diagnosed with cancer.
Doctors removed a baseball-size tumor from Brandt’s small intestine, and he removed his class notes from the shelf.
The past two years have been something of a real-life clinical for this pharmacy student. Some professors wondered whether Brandt could undergo treatment while maintaining the rigorous pharmacy school class load. Yet, despite surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and missed weeks of school, Brandt remained committed to his education.
On Saturday, he will graduate with his classmates, an achievement many consider exceptional. But not Brandt. With all the help from faculty, staff and classmates, it was easy, he said.
“I had so much help,” Brandt said. “I was carrying the small burden of just going through something. Regardless of my situation, it’s a cool thing for all of us (pharmacy students) to have gotten to this point.”
Brandt speaks nonchalantly about his battle with cancer.
“He talks about it like, ‘I had a bout with cancer,’ like he had a flu bug or something,” says his wife, Angela, also a UM pharmacy student. The couple married last July, only 10 days after Brandt finished treatments.
Brandt’s casual demeanor stems not only from the depth of his medical knowledge acquired as a student, but his fairly extensive medical past.
He was a sophomore in high school when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease that causes severe stomach pains. He was constantly in and out of hospitals. By age 23, Brandt had undergone eight surgeries as a result of the disease.
For as much as Brandt hated spending time in hospitals growing up, he admits it’s ironic that he’s pursuing a medical profession. But he always enjoyed science, and his family encouraged him into health care because of his familiarity with the field.
When he arrived at UM in 2006, Brandt was the healthiest he’d been in his whole life. He ate whatever he wanted. He weighed 170 pounds. He tried out for, and won a spot on, the college lacrosse team, which several months later traveled to Texas for the national tournament and won.
“My body was extremely happy,” he said.
A year later, school became increasingly more demanding and stomach aches – like the ones he used to get in high school – returned. His weight dropped to 155 pounds. He had less energy.
By his third year, the pain grew worse. At first Brandt thought he had the stomach flu. It was going around campus, after all.
The pain persisted. Brandt, knowing a lot about human anatomy, tried to diagnosis himself. Did the pain increase as the result of eating certain foods? Was it associated with sleep?
One evening, around 6 p.m., the pain in his stomach turned intolerable. Brandt described it like someone squeezing his guts. Though he went to bed that night, sleep was impossible.
Around 6 a.m., he knew he needed to go to the emergency room. Rather than calling Angela, his fiancée, he dialed a friend.
“I didn’t need (Angela) to get all worked up,” he said, reflecting back on that moment. “She had a lot going on that day and I didn’t want her to get scared. I just wanted her to go to school.”
Just as Brandt suspected, X-rays showed a blockage in his small intestine. No one knew what it was, however. There was concern that the intestine could rupture, so it was important to act quickly. Brandt, having grown up in Lambert, had a doctor in Billings who was most familiar with his medical history. He was quickly flown there by medical helicopter.
“I was mad,” Brant recalls.
Several procedures to remove the blockage failed. Doctors told Brandt they needed to open him up to figure out the problem.
After the surgery, Brandt was still unconscious when the doctors approached Angela and his parents.
“This is the part about being a physician that I don’t like,” the doctor began.
Angela was sure her sweetheart was dead or dying. It’s a moment, she says, forever burned in her brain.
When Brandt awoke and noticed an excrement collection bag next to him, he knew something was wrong. The doctor didn’t just open him up for a look. He knew enough to know better.
“When he was coming out of sedation, he was asking, ‘Why do I have this on me?’ I wasn’t prepared to tell him he had cancer,” Angela said. “I danced around the issue. I knew if I told him he would have more questions, and I didn’t feel I could adequately answer them.”
The doctor removed several feet of his small intestine, which contained a tumor. Brandt stayed in the hospital six days before returning to Missoula. But the healing process had only just begun.
Faculty members recorded lectures for Brandt and allowed him to take tests when he was able. His professors answered questions he had about his own cancer treatments. His classmates brought him notes, threw fundraisers and held raffles to help cover medical expenses. They took turns cooking meals for the couple.
Dropping out of school was never something Brandt seriously considered.
“I would’ve lost my mind,” he said. “I needed to keep my mind occupied rather than focus on how I felt. I thought that was healthy for me.”
There were only a few days that Brandt made it to class that semester despite his best effort. He drove back and forth to Billings for chemotherapy treatments, and later, luckily secured a pharmacy rotation in Billings at one of the oncology centers where he’d take his lunch break each day to receive radiation treatments.
Rarely does a college student rejoice at the idea of a final exam, but Brandt managed to take his last therapeutics test on campus.
“That was really cool for me,” he said. “It was nice for me to participate with my class as a classmate.”
The UM pharmacy school, because of the class load and the school’s high expectations, certainly challenges students. To maintain enrollment while battling cancer “is about as difficult as it could possibly be,” said Lori Morin, pharmacy professor and assistant dean of student affairs. “It’s no small feat.”
She added, “Our faculty worked with Kurtis, but in no way shape or form did they lower their standards.”
Brandt’s compassion for patients has grown, and he’ll put that to use in launching a career as a pharmacist in California where he secured a job at a retail pharmacy.
Today, Brandt is healthy with a full head of hair again. He’s excited to have more control over his time and schedule and put to use what he’s learned – both inside and outside the classroom.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.