Fourteen-year-old Kurtis Millson of Fishersville, Va., has spent years in physical therapy, chattering about athletes and race-car drivers and pumping iron for the time when he could walk away from his wheelchair.

This week, buoyed by a community fund-raising effort and the reputation of Boston orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Scott, Kurtis and his parents headed for Massachusetts for the hip replacement that they believed was the first step in overcoming the rheumatoid arthritis that has stunted his growth and left him virtually crippled.

But hard times followed them north. Monday, the van that served as the youth's traveling bedroom was stolen from a motel parking lot; yesterday, just hours before his operation was scheduled to begin, Kurtis developed respiratory problems.

"Kurtis is okay," said a spokesman at Children's Hospital in Boston. "They're planning to go back to Virginia sometime this weekend. The surgery will have to be postponed . . . His father said they'd just have to regroup."

A long delay "would really be hard" for Kurtis, said Dana Dempsey, a physical therapist at Staunton's Virginia Rehabilitation Agency who has worked with Kurtis for nearly a year. "He really had his heart set on walking."

Kurtis, who has suffered from degenerative rheumatoid arthritis since he was 2 years old, first attracted attention outside Fishersville, a small town between Staunton and Waynesboro, after reports that the Millson's van had been stolen from a motel in Plymouth, Mass. By the time the van was found 24 hours later in a field behind a small town gas station, it had been used in two armed robberies and was partially wrecked.

Millson, a machine-shop teacher at the Valley Vocational Technical Center in Fishersville, had installed a bed and sink in the van and a ramp with handrails for his son's wheelchair. During an earlier trip to Boston to meet with Dr. Scott, Kurtis had stayed in the van.

The youth is less than three feet tall and weighs only 42 pounds. "He's a very friendly boy, very talkative," Dempsey said. "Like most kids his age, he talks about race cars and basketball. And girls."

Kurtis, who just graduated from Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, would have begun eighth grade next month at Wilson High. An average student, Kurtis depends on an aide, supplied by the school, who takes notes for him.

His fondness for race cars, along with a penchant for careering through the halls in his electric wheelchair, inspired his seventh-grade classmates to buy him a subscription to Hot Rod magazine.

"He can drive the electric wheelchair, but he can't push it," Dempsey said. "He can't lift himself up in bed, or sit up by himself." Constant medication caused him to develop cataracts, for which he has already undergone surgery.

"He doesn't talk much about what he wants to do when he grows up," Dempsey said. "He talks a lot about walking."

Dempsey had hoped that with the hip replacements, Kurtis would have been able to stand by himself, maybe even go back to using a walker as he did several years ago. More surgery would be necessary to reconstruct his wrists and ankles as well.

A campaign to raise money for Kurtis became a community project after the Arthritis Foundation approached the Waynesboro News-Virginian six weeks ago.

"A lot of kids have gotten involved," according to Phyllis Watt, a News-Virginian reporter. "One vacation Bible school set a goal of $100, and they raised $400." A car-washing project for Kurtis is scheduled for today, and the local Moose Lodge has plans to throw a benefit dance.

Eventually, the Millsons hope to raise enough money to buy a new van, this one equipped with a lift and special driving controls; install a small exercise hot tub for Kurtis, and buy an electric typewriter or small personal computer for his schoolwork.

"But it's up in the air how much money they're going to need," Watt said. "They figure $20,000 for the doctors' bills at least, and they don't know what the insurance will pay . . . as of last Saturday they had about $4,000."