By Joe Southern
Whenever people posted on social media about Alyssa Ferguson, they usually included the hashtag #AlyssaWins.
On Thursday the hashtag changed to #AlyssaWon, as the brain cancer the Ridge Point High School freshman fought the last three years released her spirit into eternal rest. God called home the girl with the effervescent smile who changed the world in her short 15 years.
Alyssa made headlines in 2015 while battling her cancer when Make-A-Wish asked her to “dream big” and offered to have her do anything she imagined. Rather than go to a Disney theme park or meet a famous celebrity, she asked them to install a water well for a village in the African country of Zimbabwe.
“Her heart was always giving. She was always thinking about other people,” said her father, Scott Ferguson.
Scott and Sandy Ferguson were students at Abilene Christian University when they met and later married. Alyssa was born in Abilene on Jan. 7, 2002. When she was 18 months old the family moved to Temple for two years and then to Round Rock. The Fergusons moved to Sienna Plantation in the summer of 2013. That fall Alyssa entered Baines Middle School and her younger sister Jenna went to elementary school.
That December, Alyssa began complaining about headaches.
“She was not a kid to complain,” Scott said. “If she had a headache, she had a headache.” They were not sure what caused them. Was it living in a new climate, the changes of puberty or the stress of being in a new school and having to take state mandated exams for the first time? Sandy said the only stress Alyssa felt about taking the exams was not for her ability but for her friends. She knew some of them were weak in certain areas and she wanted them to do well.
“She was a straight-A student and loved to read,” Sandy said.
When the headaches didn’t clear up after exams, Sandy took Alyssa to the pediatrician. The doctor, acting on gut instinct, sent Alyssa for a scan. Two days after her 12th birthday, the Fergusons received the diagnosis. Alyssa had a tumor in her brain the size of a baseball. She was hospitalized and had the first of six surgeries on her brain to remove the tumor. That was followed by 30 rounds of radiation treatment and nine months of chemo.
“The treatment is pretty standard and works in about 80 percent of cases,” Scott said.
It was during her period of treatment that the Make-A-Wish Foundation contacted her. In an interview with the Fort Bend Star in 2015, Alyssa explained why she made her wish.
“In fifth grade, my teacher read ‘A Long Walk to Water,’ and I heard a song called ‘Do Something’ by a Christian musician named Matthew West, that also inspired me,” Alyssa said. “I just kept thinking that me getting this wish is God’s plan and his plan is the way (it happened).”
By April of 2015 Alyssa was given the all clear from her doctors and she returned home to a huge celebration at her church, First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land.
“By May we were having surgery again,” Scott said. “We only had one month and it came back.”
This time the tumor was the size of a golf ball.
“We had to figure out what to do,” Scott said. “There is no Plan B. Plan B is to try this, try that.”
For the next two years there would be plenty of tries. From a stem cell transplant to more surgeries and experimental treatments, Alyssa spent much of her time in and out of hospitals. Her primary hospital was MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. She also had treatments in Florida and Boston.
Through it all, Alyssa continued to smile and inspire others. The more the cancer took, the more she gave to others.
Her struggle played out on an international stage. In 2015 Sandy took Alyssa to a Women of Faith conference in Dallas where Matthew West was performing. They met backstage, where West learned of Alyssa’s story. It was actually their second meeting, as they had met briefly in the lobby of her church the year before following one of West’s concerts there.
“He (West) was so inspired he went back to his dressing room and started writing,” Sandy said. “Four months later he had a surprise song for Alyssa.”
The Fergusons took their daughters to see West in Concert at the Berry Center where they had front row seats. Half way through the show West flashed a picture of Alyssa up on the screens and began telling her story. He then invited her on stage and debuted the song she inspired, “World Changers.”
“I was so nervous, wondering if she would like it,” he said Sunday during her memorial service at First Colony Church of Christ, where he sang two of Alyssa’s favorite songs.
West told Alyssa’s story at every concert he gave around the country and prayed with the audience for her. He stayed in regular contact with the family.
“They consider us part of the West family,” Sandy said.
Alyssa was given a lot of local recognition and opportunities as she fought her disease. The Houston Texans cheerleaders invited her to ride on their float in Houston’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and numerous celebrities got the chance to meet her during her many hospital stays. She also got to participate in a program with NASA where patients painted a space suit that was worn on a launch to the International Space Station.
Last year Alyssa enrolled in a clinical study in Boston. They stayed at a Ronald McDonald House, where they met and befriended a lady from Zimbabwe who lived near the village where the well was installed. She told them about the huge difference it made in the lives of the villagers.
“You have done a great thing,” she said.
Since then, four more wells have been installed in places around the world and many more are coming. The Alyssa Ferguson World Changer Fund (www.alyssasfund.com) was started to help continue her legacy of providing clean water to people in need around the world. There is a plaque placed with each well that contains the Bible verse from Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
Last October Alyssa started showing symptoms of the cancer again. She was taken for a scan and the results were disheartening. Not only had the cancer returned; it had spread.
“There was no more that could be done because it had spread so thoroughly throughout her brain,” Scott said.
On Dec. 22, just three days before Christmas, Alyssa took a turn for the worse. She was admitted to the hospital and within four hours started drifting in and out of consciousness. On Christmas Eve the doctors told Scott and Sandy to call in family and start making final preparations. She would start to fade and then come back.
“Then one morning she work up and started talking,” Scott said. “She said, ‘Hi Mom, where’s Dad? Where’s Jenna?’”
Not only did Alyssa live through Christmas, but Jenna’s 11th birthday and New Year’s as well. She recovered enough to leave the hospital and go home under hospice care. For her 15th birthday she invited a dozen friends over. About 100 people showed up. Rather than receive gifts, she asked that they hold a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood to collect food for Second Mile Mission’s food pantry.
In her final days, friends continued to come over and play games with her, even as her short-term memory failed and her confusion increased.
“Alyssa had a blast because she loved playing games, even though she only knew the rules,” Scott said.
On the night of Jan. 25, Alyssa began to slip away. She finally passed in the early morning of Jan. 26, more than a month after doctors told the family her death was eminent. On Sunday, nearly 1,000 people attended her memorial service. It was also streamed online. There she was remembered as a tough fighter, a bright student and a girl with a heart for others.
On Friday, as workers removed the hospital bed from their home, Sandy said one of the things she will miss the most is Alyssa’s smile.
“The cancer weakened her body but it didn’t weaken her commitment to her faith and that has resonated throughout the church, throughout the community and with people all across the world,” Sandy said.
#AlyssaWins, #AlyssaWon, #WorldChanger