Scoring in the first game of the season is a dream for nearly every high school field hockey player. For Charlottesville’s Alex Ferguson, Thursday’s season-opening goal against E.C. Glass had even more significance.
The senior’s first-half tally not only served as the game-winner against the Hilltoppers, but helped turn the page on an emotional 11-month recovery from a near life-threatening injury.
Ferguson is the first Schewels Athlete of the Week for the 2018-19 school year.
Last September, Ferguson, her siblings and friends were playing on a zipline in her backyard when her life changed in a split second. She slipped and fell six feet from a tree and landed in a “belly-flop” position on a tree stump.
“At first, all I could think of is how can I pull this off so [my siblings] are not scared,” Ferguson recalled. “I think because I was in shock, it didn’t hurt at first, but instead felt like the wind had been knocked out of my stomach.”
She sent the kids off to play somewhere else and called her parents, who were on their way to Richmond. Twenty minutes later, Ferguson’s parents returned and took her straight to the emergency room, where she learned she had a lacerated pancreas.
“It is always terrifying to learn you need surgery, whether it be getting wisdom teeth removed or having your appendix removed,” Ferguson said. “But when the doctors told me I needed to have emergency surgery to investigate internal bleeding, I kind of freaked out.”
The original plan was to remove the pancreas and spleen, but during the surgery, the doctors believed there was a small chance to save her pancreas with an “alternative procedure” and sewed it back up
After consultation, the doctors snaked a stent down Ferguson’s throat all the way into her pancreatic duct to realign it and hopefully save the organ. The procedure worked, and both Ferguson’s pancreas and spleen were saved.
The surgery was a success, but the road to recovery was a long and tedious process of education and healing. Ferguson admitted that she didn’t know much about the pancreas prior to the accident, but quickly realized its importance.
“I learned the hard way that the pancreas is the most painful organ in the body to injure because when it gets injured, it leaks very acidic enzymes that basically start dissolving your other organs,” Ferguson said. “I knew it was an organ, but I thought it was like your appendix and didn’t really matter. I knew diabetes came from blood sugar and insulin levels, but beyond that, I was clueless.”
For example, Ferguson said her first shower after the surgery was the most memorable thing throughout the entire recovery process.
“It took over an hour, from the time I left the hospital bed, to the time I got back in it,” she said. “I could not stand for more than a few minutes and needed my mom and a nurse to help me wash my body. I didn’t even get to wash my hair.”
After Ferguson returned home, her top priority was healing. Ferguson said the process was slow but she tried to remain patient throughout.
“Everyone thinks recovery will be a set timeline they can measure, but that’s just not how it works,” she said. “The key is to focus on the positives, forget the past and take life minute-by-minute. There’s no time travel, no rewind button. It’s easy to get discouraged when you focus on long-term goals, instead of achievable goals. This will boost yourself mentally and that is the hardest and most important part.”
Ferguson said doctors told her that it would be possible to play sports in the future. Pancreatic injuries are rare in children and they were unsure how quickly she could recover. They projected it would take approximately 12 months to make a full recovery.
The CHS senior’s top priority was focused on catching up and doing well in school, so rehab didn’t start until late January.
“Once I started, I realized that it would be a very big challenge, both mentally and physically,” Ferguson said.
She worked closely with her dedicated team of doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center, as well as Charlottesville field hockey coach Lindsay Clark and junior varsity coach Maddy Eure, to help her through the rehab efforts.
Ferguson stuck to her game plan and focused on little victories.
“One of the silver linings of my homebound instruction was getting to spend a lot of time with my family,” she said. “I also had a lot of dedicated family, friends and community members who consistently and unwaveringly visited me and kept me in their thoughts and prayers.”
Ferguson was cleared to play high school sports in April, under the condition that she strengthened her abdominal muscles during the summer. Doctors saw progress, but Ferguson said it took her a while to notice it for herself until she started biking on a family trip.
The vacation included walking six miles a day for the first week. Ferguson then biked 23 miles a day the next week.
“At first, I did not think I could make it, but by the end I could finish the routes and delay my daily naps by a few hours,” she said. “After we returned, I started jogging for as long as I could and then I gradually moved to running and added weight training to strengthen all my other muscles in order to compensate for my weak core.”
When she returned for the first day of practice, Ferguson said it was a magical experience.
“It felt like the first day of school, I was so nervous and excited.” Ferguson said. “I was nervous to see if my fitness level was good enough to hang with the rest of the group. I was beyond excited just to see everyone again. The team was amazing and welcomed me back with hugs. It almost brought me to tears.”
“To see her on the first day, one would call it a miracle, but I don’t think that gives Alex the credit she deserves,” Clark said. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even have her on my list of potential players that would be coming out this fall. I was shocked.”
After the first week of practice, Clark said Ferguson looked like she had never left.
“To see her beating everyone out there, it was incredible,” Clark said. “To see her compete again, go at full speed and to see her being herself again was everything.”
The excitement carried over to last week’s season debut against E.C. Glass.
“I was practically counting down the seconds to our game during my last period of the day,” Ferguson said. “When my name was called during the lineup, I ran down the line and when I came to Coach Clark, I saw the look on her face and it kind of hit me. Not once did I ever think I would be playing this sport again. “
The best was still yet to come.
Once the whistle blew, Ferguson said she didn’t think about anything but the game.
“It’s sort of an escape and it allowed me to forget everything else about the sport,” she said.
Midway through the first half, the Black Knights celebrated their first goal of the season on a penalty corner and Ferguson was in the middle of it. Elena O’Brien’s drive on goal was stopped by E.C. Glass’ goalkeeper, but she was unable to clear the zone. The ball landed at Ferguson’s feet and the senior redirected it into the goal for the game’s lone score.
“I had Alex on the post because her hand-eye coordination is better than most, so I knew she could get a stick on the shot,” Clark said. “When I saw Elena wind up, I knew [Ferguson] was going to get it. I am extremely intense, but instead of being excited we were winning, the only thing I could think about was she did it.”
Ferguson admitted that she got lost in the moment.
“The significance of the goal did not hit me until much later that night,” she said. “I was thinking it over in my mind and it just hit me. It hadn’t been a year since I fell, but I had just scored in a field hockey game. It was a feeling I cannot describe. I was scared to go to bed for fear I would wake up the next morning to find out it had all been a dream.”
Clark couldn’t be prouder of her senior.
“Alex is a go-getter and doesn’t want to be slowed down,” Clark said. “Her strength and resilience to get back to full speed in less than a year is remarkable. So many people have excuses for why they can’t obtain their goals — willing to give up at the first sign of hardship and terrified of failing. Alex’s determination just shows she can overcome this. There is nothing that really can slow her down and it is inspiring.”
For Ferguson, she feels fortunate to be in the position she is in.
“After a long recovery, my life has not been affected too severely,” she said. “Considering what the other possible outcomes were, I am actually very lucky.”