As the co-founder of American Top Team, one of the top coaches in mixed martial arts, and a former world jiu-jitsu champion, Ricardo Liborio’s credentials as a legitimate tough guy are more than established. But as any father of a daughter knows, when it comes to your little girl, all bets are off, especially when your child is sick.
Unfortunately, more than five years ago, Liborio and his wife Misti got the worst news a parent could get when their daughter Bella, not even two years old, was diagnosed with Crouzon Syndrome. In short, Bella’s brain was still growing at a normal rate, but the sutures of her skull were closing before they were supposed to.
“The pressure in the brain was twice the pressure of a normal brain in a kid that age,” said Liborio. “A piece of her brain was actually coming down her spine.”
Horrible news any way you slice it, but what made it worse is that while the Liborios noticed something wasn’t quite right with Bella, all the doctors they saw assured them that there was nothing wrong. That was until they were referred to Miami Children’s Hospital and saw Dr. Israel Alfonso.
“One of his clients dropped out and we were able to see him,” said Liborio. “In one x-ray, he found exactly what it was. It was timing. He told me if I did not see him that day, two weeks after she would be dead, a hundred percent.”
Luckily caught in time, Bella almost immediately underwent a series of three major reconstructive surgeries of her skull. Liborio remembers those long nights in the hospital.
“Words can’t describe it, he said. “You feel helpless. There’s not much you can do but hang tough in there. In my case there was nothing else that I could have done, and it was just about letting nature take its course. Unfortunately there are so many people like this there (at MCH). There are people there right now suffering the same things that I did, but ten times worse. My situation was pretty bad; I didn’t know if my daughter was going to live or die. I saw kids there that have been there in bed for ten years and they will never get up, and the parents are there. It was three o’clock in the morning and I was just talking to the parents of kids that had brain cancer, and those kids probably didn’t survive. The only feeling you have is that you’ve got to trust in something. What’s going to happen will happen and there’s not much you can do; you just have to deal with that. No one could sleep and we’re talking about the situation just to vent. It was just us and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Thankfully, the surgeries were a success, and as we fast forward to the present, Bella Liborio is a happy and typical seven-year-old. She is blind, but that has not stopped her from smiling.
“She lives the normal life of a seven-year-old besides the fact that she’s blind now,” said her proud papa. “If we actually caught this before, she might not even be blind, but I can’t think about what could be. I can’t dream about that and I can’t allow myself to go into those waters. If I started thinking ‘oh, my daughter can’t see the blue sky or the flowers,’ I would get into a depression and I can’t. I can’t afford to be depressed. I’ve got to move on and you don’t stop. You just keep going.
Like his daughter, who may just be the toughest person in the American Top Team gym where she is surrounded by a loving gang of big brothers comprised of some of the top fighters in mixed martial arts today.
“They all melt, and they all love her so much,” said Liborio. “Everybody knows her and talks to her, and everybody gives her a lot of attention.”
And if you were wondering, yes, she is already studying the family business of jiu-jitsu.
“She’s been studying since she was five years old,” he said. “I’m biased, but I like what I’ve been seeing and what I’ve been hearing about her training skills. She’s doing really well and most importantly, she likes it a lot.”
To see Bella today, you would have no clue what she went through in her early years. As her father points out, she doesn’t remember the surgeries with the exception of having an aversion to getting her blood pressure taken, and she has a life many wouldn’t expect her to have given her initial diagnosis. So it goes without saying that the Liborios are thankful to Miami Children’s Hospital, and in particular the hospital’s Miami Children’s Brain Institute, which was cited by US News & World Report as one of the best Pediatric Hospitals for Neurology & Neurosurgery.
“If there’s one word to define that place, it’s life,” said Liborio, who has teamed up with the hospital for a fundraising campaign entitled “Little Warriors.” It’s not the first time Liborio has done his part to give back, as he has been working with the Lighthouse of Broward since 2007 to provide a summer camp for more than 30 blind or visually impaired children each year.
“The sport’s really helped the kids so much, it’s changed their lives,” he said. Now he wants to make sure Miami Children’s Hospital can keep changing the lives of children and families like his own.
“I know what those parents passed through, and it is important for somebody who lived this kind of experience to try and hold their hands. We’re going to make the best of this thing and set stones for future generations of people that need it. We’re going to try to help them.”
As for Bella and her future, Liborio, like any other father, has just one wish for his daughter:
“She is our princess,” he beams. “She’s amazing and she’s an inspiration. She’s happy and I hope that she’s going to be happy the rest of her life.”