In July 2007, four-and-a-half-year-old Bella Torres became paralyzed overnight.
Her father, Raymond Rodriguez-Torres said she had no prior symptoms of an illness when it happened, although she previously had complained of a stomachache. That complaint had been checked out by her pediatrician who ran tests that ruled out any problems.
“That was the first sense of something seriously wrong,” he said.
He rushed home from his meeting in Orlando and met his family at Miami Children’s Hospital, where his father had been chief of staff for 16 years.
“They performed a lumbar puncture,” Rodriguez-Torres said. “It came back positive for a disease she didn’t have — Guillain-Barre syndrome. She started treatment for that.”
He was horrified, since he knew about the disease as his father had a bout with it years before. In its worst case, Guillain-Barre could cause the respiratory system to be paralyzed.
The experimental treatment his father received is now the standard treatment that is given over five days. But on the fifth day, they could see the paralysis was not improving. The doctors suggested one more test. The test showed Bella had Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma in the form of enormous tumor wrapped around her spine. It’s a rare childhood cancer that’s very aggressive.
“She had cancer in her jaw, her foot, her shoulder, her rib, her hip, her knee, her hand and later in her brain,” Rodriguez-Torres said.
The doctors told Rodriguez-Torres and his wife, Shannah, that Bella would never walk again and with stage four cancer, she probably wouldn’t live.
But the family was not willing to give up without a fight.
“What we decided to do is to try a chemo protocol for six weeks and see if it changed,” he said. “Bella began therapy that afternoon. I found myself in the greatest point of despair.”
Until Bella’s illness, Rodriguez-Torres was not a religious man. Raised in the Catholic Church, he was a lapsed Catholic, but during those dark days he believes God talked to him through a friend and told him he needed to have an army of people to pray for his daughter.
“When I hung up the phone I felt different,” Rodriguez-Torres said.
His brother and sister-in-law developed the website www.PrayForBella.com to help bring people together to pray for his daughter. And people all over the world did pray.
“They prayed from as far away as Japan and Australia,” he said. “We even had conference calls where we would all pray in unison, together.”
After the first round of chemo, the tumor had shrunk 94 percent and then a scan showed the other areas of her body were cancer free.
“Today Bella is the only known survivor of her kind of cancer in the world,” he said. “She can walk, jump and play. She is a cheerleader at her school. Bella’s case was investigated by the Catholic Church and is officially known as a miracle.”
Rodriguez-Torres believes that Virgin Mary also made several visitations based on things his daughter told him, things that were impossible for the child to know otherwise.
“I don’t know why we were chosen for this,” he said.
The experience changed his life. Rodriguez-Torres became a certified life coach working with families of childhood cancer patients pro bono. His book, Why Not Me, is the publisher’s bestseller and he speaks at churches and events about what happened.
“I am the happiest man you will speak to today, tomorrow and the next day,” he said.