When little Bella Rodriguez-Torres was diagnosed with cancer, she was surrounded by a top team of nurses.
When Bella had an unexpected seizure, she was aided by members of the fire department. And when she died in May 2013, her family was comforted by a police officer’s embrace.
“Many know the story of ‘Live like Bella,’ but many few know the story I will soon tell you,” Raymond Rodriguez-Torres said Thursday to a packed auditorium, roughly two years after his daughter’s death. “I am the beneficiary of police officers, paramedics, nurses, and first responders.”
Rodriguez-Torres addressed more than 150 local health professionals, responders and their families at The Fire Tower in Doral during a joint meeting with The Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, Fellowship of Christian Firefighters, Fellowship of Christian Nurses and The Blue Line Angels.
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“I am forever in debt to you,” he said. “Thank you for being here; thank you for what you do to serve the Lord every day. Thank you for serving me and my family.”
His daughter Bella battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer for six years until she died at age 10. The little girl became a social media phenomenon around the globe as her parents chronicled her chemotherapy treatments on Facebook.
But the events that happened throughout that journey, Rodriguez-Torres said, were “supernatural” and filled with “signs and wonders from God.”
“People were praying for Bella in China, in Australia,” he said.
The man explained how the first responders sitting in that very room played a huge part in his life and trek of Christian faith.
“They were at every scene; Bella’s journey always involved their service, ” he said. “God blessed us with them.”
Rodriguez-Torres went on to chronicle his story of heartache: finding out his firstborn little girl had stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma. Soon after, in 2007, Bella became paralyzed from the waist down and was told by doctors she would never walk again. He was told Bella had only weeks to months to live.
“I saw my precious child turn every color in front of me. She said: ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and Daddy couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I did my best to not break down in front of my wife and especially Bella so I went outside.
“But then I received a call from a friend. I told him that I was disappointed in myself for giving up. I had already envisioned my daughter in a grave.”
That’s when the person on the other end of Rodriguez-Torres’s ear changed the game, feeding a fire that would soon birth the Live Like Bella Foundation in 2013, which supports families with children in treatment and provides memorial assistance for families who have lost children to cancer.
“Bella has been attacked from before she was even born. The question you need to ask yourself is: ‘What wonderful plans does God have for your daughter that all this is against her? You not only need to pray for your child, you have to build an army of people to pray.”
From then on, Rodriguez-Torres said he felt different. “I remember thinking: ‘Yes, this stinks, but we’re gonna hit this head on.”
Rodriguez-Torres then marched right back into the hospital.
“We don’t need anymore Cinderella coloring books. I don’t need Play-Doh. I don’t need money. I need a miracle,” he told the nurse. “I need you to ask two and three other people to pray for us. And then for those two and three people to do the same.”
And so it was done. Soon after, mountains started to move. Someone gifted the Rodriguez-Torres family with a website; world-wide prayer teleconferences started. The little girl was treated by doctors on just about every continent.
Bella began to improve. She broke paralysis and started walking again. At one point, she was cancer-free for two years.
“She saw visions, had encounters with Jesus and would tell us that Jesus would help her,” Rodriguez-Torres said. “I knew that I was that indeed not crazy and that I was in the middle of a miracle.”
Soon after, a South Miami-Dade park was renamed in Bella’s honor, and the Live Like Bella and Miami Children’s Health foundations honored Bella with a pavilion at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, formerly Miami Children's Hospital.
When Bella died, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James wrote #LiveLikeBella on their shoes during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. That same week, the Miami Marlins hung up a jersey with the hashtag in the dugout.
A section of Southwest 107th Avenue was renamed Live Like Bella Way in December 2013.
On Wednesday, the Live Like Bella Foundation and members of the Miami Police Department will be biking 300 miles to Orlando to visit Bella’s favorite place, Disney World. The ride will be in memory of Bella, late Miami Police Officer Aura Fynes and late Miami Firefighter Ralf Garcia.
“First responders are special to me; they hold a special place in our lives,” Rordriguez-Torres said. “Bella wanted to be a police officer. She was made an honorary police officer by the Miami Police and then honorary police chief. Her first order was pizza for everyone.”
When Bella died on May 28, 2013, she was treated as a fallen officer with full escort. Her funeral was filled with nurses and dozens of red fire trucks, her favorite color.
“She was three-foot-nine, bald, but packed quite a punch,” Rodriguez-Torres said.
Jorge Alessandri, a Miami Beach Police sergeant and president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, an organization that aims to provide support and accountability to officers, said law enforcement officials play an intricate role in stories like Bella’s.
“We all have a significant part to the big peace,” Alessandri said. “I can only do so much as an officer, then firemen and paramedics come in, and then then nurses. We all work as a team to help our community.
“We don’t get called for a cup of coffee. We get called for a crisis. So to see us all get together to say, “Hey we love you; we’re here for you,’ just moves me.”