The sweetest spirit
An inspiration. Big-hearted. Strong. Full of faith. A smile that will pierce your heart.
All of these descriptions, and multiple others, have been used when speaking about Alissa Gomez.
Alissa, age 7, was diagnosed with a malignant form of brain cancer in April 2016. After surgery and treatment, she and her family were ready to move on to bigger and better things. But a follow-up appointment earlier this year revealed the cancer had come back in different areas of Alissa's brain. She is currently undergoing experimental treatment and enjoying time with those who love her most—her family.
"The first thing I noticed was Alissa walking funny," Brooke Gomez, Alissa's grandmother, says. "She would hit the wall when she turned the corner. I asked her if she was just being silly and she told me no. I thought maybe she had an ear infection or something was throwing off her equilibrium."
Wasting no time, Brooke took Alissa to her pediatrician, Dr. Christina Sherrod, who performed hand-eye coordination tests and watched her walk up and down the hallway.
"Alissa came to my office complaining of vomiting, and her grandmother said she had been walking funny," Dr. Sherrod says. "Unfortunately, that's a big red flag for a mass in the brain. We did a CT scan that day which did reveal a large mass at the base of her brain. She had symptoms for a few weeks, but it came on pretty suddenly. With her age and the way the CT looked, it was concerning for a medulloblastoma, a type of cancer of the brain."
In the span of less than a day, everything changed for the Gomez family.
"We left the doctor's office at 5 p.m.," Brooke says. "Dr. Sherrod told us to go home and pack our bags. I came home, told my husband, Jerry, what was going on, packed, and we headed to Fort Worth to Cook Children's Hospital the next morning. Jerry stayed home to take care of Alissa's two brothers. After her appointment, we had a pow-wow with the doctors."
During the meeting, Brooke and Jerry were told Alissa needed to have surgery to remove the tumor—and it needed to happen as quickly as possible.
"Everything changed in one day," Jerry says. "Things were already hard for the kids because they had lost their dad, my son. They've been through a lot. Sometimes as a parent you don't digest the fact that something so tragic could take place."
The doctors at Cook Children's began working to deal with Alissa's circumstances immediately. A plan to remove the tumor, undergo radiation for a few months and follow up with chemotherapy was set into motion. The family also waited on results of genetic testing from the tumor to see which type of treatment Alissa would respond to best.
"The results of the genetic tests showed Alissa's tumor was a malignant form of medulloblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer," Dr. Sherrod says. "This meant her prognosis was poor."
With the support of their family in San Angelo, Alissa and Brooke stayed at Cook Children's for three months after surgery while Alissa underwent radiation.
"My parents came to our home to help Jerry with the boys," Brooke says. "We took a month break and took Alissa to Disney World. After that trip we started chemo. We did her first chemo treatments at Cook's and we would stay there for about a week. We would come home and she would have to be admitted to Shannon for a week or more."
Alissa's counts would drop after chemotherapy, lowering her immune system's ability to fight bacteria, which made her more susceptible to infection. She would have high fever and require antibiotics, blood transfusions and other treatments to help her recover.
"Alissa is the happiest patient I've ever taken care of," Skylar Stewart, RN, BSN, Shannon Pediatrics nurse, says. "Every time she's on the unit I make sure I get to take care of her. She loves arts and crafts, so we always have supplies available for her. She's dealt with more than any kid I've ever known, but she's always smiling even though she's very sick."
The Outpatient Chemotherapy Center located on the Pediatric Unit allows children like Alissa to stay here and receive treatment.
"I didn't even know that type of treatment was available here until I had a child that needed it," Brooke says. "The area was very nice, and she would watch TV, recline in the chair and wrap up in a blanket during her chemo. They made it as comfortable as possible for her. It was nice we could be here at home and not travel because it puts such a strain on our family."
The nurses receive special training to access ports and administer chemotherapy through Children's Miracle Network funding. Sometimes, Alissa's treatments would only last five minutes. Without this training, patients would have to travel to receive chemotherapy.
Alissa's stays on the Pediatrics Unit at Shannon were difficult for her, but she formed a few everlasting friendships and has impacted the lives of the staff more than she will ever know.
"She built a very good relationship with all the nurses," Brooke says. "She would be upset and crying at times because she didn't want to be in the hospital. Skylar would come into her room and do crafts with her and make her laugh and smile. Dr. Sherrod also sent some paints and craft supplies to the hospital for her. When she felt well enough to leave the room, the outdoor area was her favorite place to go. We would play with chalk, sit by the fountain and enjoy everything—even under our circumstances. CMN has done so much to provide these services for Alissa so she's able to feel at home—the equipment, televisions, play areas—you don't think it's a big deal, but it's everything for a kid to feel normal and not like they're sick and in the hospital."
Along with her resilient smile, Alissa also makes a lasting impression with her faith.
"She makes me want to be a better person and makes me want to keep going to provide care for other kids," Skylar says. "She has a special place in my heart. Regardless of what God has planned for her, she's taught me so much and she will always help me to focus on the fact that God is in control and there's a purpose for everything."
"Alissa is the exact reason I do what I do," Dr. Sherrod says. "She is the reason I became a pediatrician. She's a sweet, humble respectful girl who has braved so much. She just wants you to do the best you can for her. I think everyone who has interacted with her has seen that. She is an inspiration and you want to do your absolute best to help her."
Brooke, Jerry and their family are enjoying their time with Alissa. They have been very open with her about her prognosis and are in awe of her amazing attitude.
"When we told her the cancer came back, she ran into my arms and cried," Brooke says. "I told her they would give her more medicine to shrink the tumors and make them go away. She asked what happened if the medicine doesn't work. I told her if it doesn't work, there is a possibility she could die. In that moment, she had a big smile on her face and asked me if that meant she could see Jesus and her daddy. I realized then God had given her peace. God is good and she is a miracle for so many reasons. She's an amazing little girl. She's taught me so much as a person, as a grandma. She's brought so much life to us. She's given me hope, taught me patience. She's an amazing child. I wish I could be half the girl she is. She's a miracle whether she's here or with Jesus. She's touched everyone's life she has come across."