Bella Herrera | Special Needs Child Remembered

Herrera Family | Special Needs Children“Lisa and Dennis Herrera remember daughter Bella not as a disabled child but as a happy 7-year-old who loved Barbie and the color pink. She died last January after losing oxygen during a school bus ride. The pink tree was purchased in her memory.”

 - Rob Shaw, The Tampa Tribune -


When Bella Herrera was zipping around the park in her motorized wheelchair, she didn’t have a care in the world.

When the 7-year-old took a dip in the pool, she was just like all the other kids. With an inner tube keeping her buoyant, she could splash around and forget that her legs had stopped working a couple of years ago.

“She just wanted to be a normal little kid,” says her mother, Lisa Herrera. “She embraced who she was. She wasn’t letting it defeat her.”

“It” was a neuromuscular disorder that had been affecting her for quite some time, but especially the last two years. It made her feet turn in, made it hard and then impossible to walk. It made her neck muscles so weak that sometimes she had trouble holding up her head.

As she rode the school bus home from Sessums Elementary on Jan. 25, her family says, school district employees forgot to tilt her wheelchair back so her head would not fall forward. Seated in the back of the bus — where the ride is bumpier — her head fell forward repeatedly.

Several times, she was able to push her head back up with her hand. Finally, it became too much. Her head fell forward, cutting off her air supply, her family said. She had trouble breathing and turned blue.

An aide sitting a few rows up yelled for the bus driver to pull over. The bus driver did — right in front of a pediatric clinic — and tried to call the district’s dispatch center.

The aide called Lisa Herrera twice to come and help. Nobody on the bus called for medical assistance until Lisa Herrera arrived, saw her daughter was near death and dialed 911 with her own phone.

Bella died the next day in a local hospital.

Her death, and the death of a second special-needs student nine months later, ignited a review of the school district’s entire special-needs program. The two deaths also unleashed criticism from parents and special-needs advocates who say Hillsborough often fails its most vulnerable students.

Often overlooked is the brave struggle that Bella put up during her short life, and how she inspired her family and friends. The reason she was on the bus that day was she simply wanted to be like everybody else.

Isabella Rose Herrera, born July 30, 2004, didn’t start her life disabled.

She seemed like a normal, healthy baby and could sit on her own just fine when she was a few months old. She never did crawl, but she was walking at 10 months — albeit with a slight gait.

Her parents started getting concerned about her health when she was 2. They took her to specialists at Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa and even took a trip to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to consult with medical specialists. Bella was poked, prodded and had numerous tests, but doctors had a tough time putting their finger on exactly what was wrong with her.

Bella’s condition baffled doctors; her symptoms would fit part of those for one disease, and some for another. All they knew was she was getting worse as time progressed.

For a while, she wore braces on her legs to help her walk. But her feet kept turning in more, and she would trip and fall frequently.

By the middle of first grade, she had to use a wheelchair to get around.

She was always in regular classes, first at Collins Elementary and then Sessums Elementary. She had to switch to Sessums after staff at Collins — on her first day of second grade — said they weren’t equipped to help her anymore, her parents said.

They wanted to use a gurney which they called a changing table to try to get Bella from her wheelchair to the toilet when she had to go to the bathroom, her parents say. It made her feel awkward and embarrassed; many times she would just wait until she got home to go to the bathroom.

No matter where she was, however, Bella made honor roll and got citizenship awards. While parts of her body failed her, her brain did not. She was bright and reading well above her grade level.

“We always thought that what she lacked in physical strength, she compensated with her mind,” her mother says. “She was super smart.”

Bella loved to make home movies on her dad’s cellphone and she loved to sing — when she thought no one was listening.

At one point, she even penned what she called, “Theme Song of Bella.”

“She is beautiful. She is cute,” she wrote. “She goes to the doctor a lot. She’s Bella.”

“She was still at that 7-year-old mindset where she thought she would walk again,” Lisa Herrera says. “It’s not like being born and not being able to walk. To go from walking to not walking … .”

Bella would ask her parents: Will I walk again one day?

They’d have to tell her, “Honey, we don’t think so.”

Other children would ask what was wrong with her legs, why she couldn’t walk.

“Because God made me special,” she would tell them.

Like every 7-year-old girl, she loved to have sleepovers, usually with her best friend, Katelyn Wood. She loved playing with her younger sister, Ava, and bossing her around. She was in Girl Scouts.

Pam Cooper, Bella’s troop leader, says the Scouts today frequently ask about their friend.

“I just tell them she’s looking down at us and that she’s watching out for us,” Cooper says.

At Halloween, she enjoyed dressing up in anything girly. One year, she was Princess Barbie Charm School, another year she was a fairy, and still another time she was a pink superwoman.

“She was like a princess, she really was,” says Paula Orandash, health care service coordinator for the Tampa Bay district of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. “She just had that kind demeanor that attracted anyone to her.”

Orandash saw Bella when she came for different treatments, and she would interact with her at social events such as the MDA gala and Christmas party.

“The moment she would roll into a room, I would see the enthusiasm and the spark that she gave,” she says. “We would all gravitate to her.

“You never saw the wheelchair, you never saw the child with the disability,” Orandash adds. “You just saw her.”

Eleven months later, little sister Ava still struggles with Bella’s absence.

The two shared a bedroom. They would lie there into the night, chatting about things, their parents listening through the monitor they always kept in the room. Bella and Ava, who is now 5, were inseparable.

“She’s still trying to grasp the concept of death and heaven,” Lisa Herrera says.

“It’s devastating for her,” says her father, Dennis Herrera. “They were constantly teaming up to get things done. She asked just this morning, ‘Is Bella ever going to come back?’ ”

Ava wants the dog to sleep with her, and she wants a light on in the bedroom.

Older brother Jack, who’s in eighth grade, couldn’t bring himself to ask what happened to Bella until a few months after she died.

Bella’s parents, who have filed a lawsuit against the school district, continue to struggle with the loss.

Lisa Herrera used to operate a cake business out of her home while she took care of Bella, but she has lost her zest for that.

Dennis, who’s the director of technology for a local company, says, “I can’t even watch a movie when somebody dies without crying.”

In the family room sits a bright pink Christmas tree, bought this year in memory of Bella.

“I was just compelled,” her mother says softly. “She would have loved it.”

The tree sits next to a large wooden cabinet — called Bella’s cabinet — that holds special memories.

There’s Bella’s first tooth, her first lock of hair, her birth certificate. Photos of her with everyone in the family. There’s a My Little Pony and a 50th anniversary Barbie that Bella often wanted to play with, but mom told her it was a collector’s item and needed to be preserved.

“I wish I would have let her play with it,” Lisa says.

In the living room of the family’s house sits their regular green Christmas tree, next to the stockings for Ava, Jack and Bella. They used to top the tree with a star, but not this year.

Now, there’s an angel atop the tree, looking down over the family every day, clutching a rose in her hand.

Steve Maher, the Herrera family attorney, has a deep desire to educate and empower parents, educators, doctors, therapists and community partners in the spirit of advocacy and commitment to those with Autism and their families.  It is Steve’s hope that with education, tragedies – like the Herrera’s – will cease to exist.

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