At the Miami Children’s Hospital Diamond Ball in October, 10-year-old Briana Vega stood before a crowd of men and women in tuxes and gowns to talk about her diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
It was a few weeks after her 10th birthday.
Coral Gables fashion designer Rene Ruiz, who was among the crowd of 700, was so touched that he offered to help her design a dress for the Multiple Sclerosis Society 30th annual gala fashion show, to be held in January.
“When she spoke, it was really overwhelming,” said Ruiz, who has designed evening wear for shoe designer Lisa Pliner, Univision anchorwoman Maria Elena Salinas and Real Housewives of Miami’s Leah Black.
“I thought maybe there is something I can do to make Briana’s life just a little bit more special after everything she has been through.”
Briana, who will be one of six children among nine ‘supermodels for a day’ at the MS gala, visited Ruiz’s Coral Gables store recently, where the two sketched out Briana’s dream dress: a knee-length, silk organza dress with turquoise blue metallic overlay complemented with a crystal belt and straps.
“I thought it was great, the best thing ever,” said Briana, a fifth-grade student at Howard Elementary in South Miami-Dade. “I am hoping [the dress] will have a belt with some bling bling on it.”
At the MS show, Briana will be treated just like a model — she’ll have her makeup done by professionals, and will strut down the catwalk just like the A-list celebs.
It’s a long way from Feb. 22, when doctors performed a bone marrow biopsy, revealing Briana had leukemia. She had been complaining to her parents of pain in her legs and arms after a Saturday soccer game.
“At first, when we took her to Baptist urgent care center the next day, they thought it was the flu because she also had a fever,” said her father Humberto Vega, 36.
When the fever didn’t abate, they went to their pediatrician, who advised them to go to Miami Children’s Hospital.
“They saw her white blood cells were five times higher than what they should be,’’ Vega said.
Doctors told him, his wife Joyce Andrews, 32, and his son Javier, 12, that Briana had leukemia.
“You get knocked out to hear such results,’’ said Humberto. “There was so much information being thrown at us that it felt like if you weren’t even there.’’
Briana, who pretended to be asleep when doctors came in with the news, was shocked at what she had heard.
“I decided to eavesdrop and fake sleep,’’ she said. “But right when he walked out the door I sat up and asked: “I have cancer?
“I was first thinking if I would live or not,’’ she said.
Her father explained that cancer was not always associated with death and that she would need to undergo chemotherapy.
After her fears about dying were allayed, she worried about her long wavy hair.
“On Easter, I had to say goodbye,” Briana told the crowd at the Diamond Ball, noting her hair had begun to fall out “in bunches’’ when she stroked it. “My mom took a pair of scissors and chopped off what my family called the ‘rat’s nest’ and my dad shaved off the last of my golden brown hair.’’
Briana noted there were some good things about having no hair.
“I started to realize there are some benefits to being bald, like when people rub your head,” she said. “It’s also much easier when I don’t have to argue with my mom about wearing a ponytail or a bow in my hair.”
Her parents said it is that positive spirit that inspires them.
“Throughout everything, after chemotherapy, even with the side effects, she remains a fun and loving child with a great attitude,” said her father. “I think that is what has gotten her so many offers from people.”
Briana sang alongside Grammy-winning artist Gloria Gaynor in the “I Will Survive Bald, Brave, Beautiful” music video that made its debut at the Diamond Ball. The video aims to raise funds for cancer research.
Briana, meanwhile, is awaiting the dress from Ruiz. She’s even thinking about wearing it to her fifth grade prom.
Said Humberto: “At the end of the day, just by him coming up to us meant the world because it gives her an extra boost of hope and confidence.”