Teen battling rare disorder walks graduation stage

Alyssa Terrell graduates from Taft High School

SAN ANTONIO – For years Susan Phillips never let herself think about her youngest child, Alyssa Terrell, walking across the stage at high school graduation. Alyssa was born with tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare genetic disorder that can cause tumors to grow on a variety of organs, including the brain.

In 2012, Alyssa began chemotherapy to treat a large tumor found in her brain that began causing motor skills problems. Her family eventually converted their garage to a handicap-accessible room to help with her around-the-clock care. By July 2013, doctors ended the chemotherapy treatments because they stopped working.

"They told us at that point to take her home, she's got a few more weeks and expect her to go kind of quick," said Phillips.

They visited more doctors, including one at the UT Health Science Center who suggested a radical, never-before-done treatment using heat from lasers to destroy the tumor cells.

"It'd never been done, so it's a 50-50 chance it would even happen and that she would make it off the table," said Phillips.

The surgery, performed in October 2013, worked to kill the cells and quarterly check-ups haven't shown any signs of the tumor regrowing. Alyssa returned to Taft High School the next month, in the special education program.

"She goes to a school where the kids love her and adore her," said Phillips. "Every day she's not there, 'Where's Alyssa? Where's Alyssa?'"

But still, Phillips wouldn't make concrete plans for Alyssa to walk the stage, even if only ceremonial, taking each day as it came.

"Since she's been in high school, she's been diagnosed with a brain tumor, treated for the brain tumor, had a trach put in, had brain surgery and now we're at graduation day, which we never thought would happen," she said.

She waited until the last day to order Alyssa's cap and gown. On the afternoon of the ceremony, memories of all the daily battles and challenges brought tears to her eyes. Proud and loving tears.

"Just to see her sitting here and how much fight and determination she has amazes me every day," she said. "The strength and the way she touches people, it's her whole purpose for being here."

As Alyssa's name was called Thursday night at the Alamodome, a brief pause, then came one of the loudest cheers of the night.

"The support and the outpouring she's gotten is amazing to me," she said. "I just don't even know how to comprehend it."

A few steps worth more than anyone can imagine.