DOVER, N.H. (AP) — Number 35 is back on the ice in Dover.
Nearly three years after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor, Levi Whitcomb, now 12, has returned to the sport he loves.
In April 2015, Levi underwent surgery where doctors removed roughly 95 percent of the tumor, which had spread to his brain stem. The surgery was followed by months at a rehabilitation hospital and several rounds of chemotherapy.
According to his mother, Jennifer Pepin, Levi missed part of the fourth grade, most of the fifth grade and even some of his sixth grade year. Now a seventh-grader at Marshwood Middle School, Levi is doing pretty well for all he has been through.
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“He still has some challenges, both physically and cognitively,” Pepin said. “The tumor, the surgery, and the chemotherapy all have really terrible side effects that affect the method in which he learns.”
Levi had already returned to playing soccer and lacrosse, his other favorite sport, but Pepin said returning to the ice is an important milestone for him and the whole family.
“It brings back part of normalcy, this is what we used to do, after school and hockey is a huge part of life, so it brings back a lot of reminders of the way things used to be,” Pepin said. “When he came out of his surgery he was in a medically induced coma, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t breathe on his own, and he couldn’t walk. He had to learn to do all those things all over again. So for him to go from that in 2015 to this is 2017 is just remarkable.”
Pepin said she checked with Levi’s doctors at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to be sure it would be safe for him to resume playing hockey and other sports.
“They were all for it,” Pepin said. “His physical therapist was concerned about his balance, but they felt hockey would help improve it.”
Taking a break from practice Friday night, Levi said he is really glad to be back as a member of the Dover Stars, a team in the Dover Youth Hockey Association (DYHA).
“It feels good, it feels like I am getting it back,” Levi said.
Since returning to hockey he said he feels a little stronger off the ice.
The family gave the association plenty of notice that Levi wanted to come back to be sure the coaches could handle any challenges.
“At the first practice, the coach spent a full 20 minutes with me getting a sense of what Levi would be able to do,” Pepin said. “The coaches have been great. The whole league has been great.”
On Dec. 11, DYHA board members Jeremy Forest and Craig Croteau presented Levi with a new hockey stick and welcomed him back.
In a statement posted on the association webpage, Forest said Levi serves as a great example of perseverance, hard work and a positive attitude.
“These are qualities that we all hope to impart on our children, both on and off the ice,” Forest wrote. “The next time you’re looking for a good example, just take a look in the DYHA trophy case in the lobby of the Dover Ice Arena. In it you’ll see trophies and plaques from the past victories of DYHA teams. You’ll also find a picture of a Dover Stars goalie, arms raised in victory, with the autograph “Levi #35.”
Forest wrote that Levi’s perseverance, hard work and positive attitude were rewarded when he laced up his skates, pulled on his number 35 jersey, and jumped back on the ice as a forward for the U14 House League White team.
“To see him out there skating with his teammates you wouldn’t know all that he has been through. He’s just boy playing hockey. And, for a kid that has been through so much at such a young age, that’s exactly how it should be,” Forest wrote. “Welcome back Levi!”
Pepin said the picture was purchased by the league at one of many fundraisers and placed in the trophy case.
“Dover Youth Hockey really rallied around us,” Pepin said. “They had a fundraiser with an auction and a dunk tank. When Levi was going through chemo therapy someone even gave us a hotel room for the night in Boston.”
The town of Rollinsford and in particular the staff and families of the Rollinsford Grade School also poured countless hours into fundraisers and a campaign called “A Little Love for Levi.”
Events like Meatballs and Mohawks, where they served Levi’s favorite sandwich and gave haircuts to match, drew hundreds to the school to help raise funds for medical costs. An online fundraising effort to help pay for Levi’s medical bills and costs not covered by insurance has netted more than $63,000.
Just as Levi was finishing practice Friday night, his brother Oscar, 14, was heading out for a game with his team.
Pepin said Levi even got to skate with his older brother Tucker, 19, last week and she has just purchased her own hockey skates.
“We’re a hockey family,” Pepin said.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com