HomeNewsArticle Display

A mother, a baby and their wingmen

Bella Leyba Lopez plays with a toy on her living room floor. Several wing members participated in a walk-a-thon for the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, May 17, in San Diego, to raise money for research to help children like Bella.

Bella Leyba Lopez plays with a toy on her living room floor. Several wing members participated in a walk-a-thon for the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, May 17, in San Diego, to raise money for research to help children like Bella.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Tech. Sgt. Marina Leyba gave birth to a baby girl last year, her Guard family at the 162nd Fighter Wing sent cards, gifts and well wishes; but this year the wing's support for the new mother runs much deeper.

Isabella Milan Leyba Lopez was born March 14, 2007, to Leyba and Mike Lopez. "We call her 'Bella Blue,' because of her beautiful blue eyes," said Sergeant Leyba.

Leyba's pregnancy and delivery were without complication; however, months later she noticed that Bella wasn't as vocal as other infants her age. Instead, she responded to her mother and the world around her with smiles and laughter. According to Leyba, the absence of "baby babble" prompted her to act.

"It was all instinct," said Leyba, "because the pediatrician said I was overreacting like most first-time mothers do, but I put my foot down and wanted her evaluated."

After extensive medical evaluation and genetic testing at Leyba's insistence, Bella was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome, March 3, a genetic disorder that can delay motor skill development, impair speech and cause frequent laughter and a smiling, happy demeanor.

"I could not believe it," said Leyba. "I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat...I lost a lot of weight.

"In the military you always have an operating procedure - you have something that tells you what to do. This was something that was out of my domain completely. I had to talk to people about it.

"All of my co-workers, even those I don't know very well, were calling me, just making sure that I was OK and that I had someone to talk to. You hear the term 'the Guard family' quite a lot - but you don't really know what it means until you're the person getting the help. Now I know what Guard family means... truly know what it means."

Sergeant Leyba's first sergeant at the time was Master Sgt. Di Aragon. Acting as the first shirt for Leyba's squadron, Aragon made Bella and her mother a top priority.

"She was right there with me," said Leyba. "She went to all of the doctor's appointments with me and my family. She was there holding my hand. She made jokes so I wouldn't go insane. Everybody in the Guard was there for me, everybody at Lockheed called, the chaplain went out to my house, and several others gave me moral support."

As acting commander of Leyba's unit, the 162nd Headquarters Squadron, Col. Greg Stroud kept a close watch on developments in Bella's case.

"I'm really proud of the way people have stepped up to help Marina through this," said Colonel Stroud. "We know that we're in this for the long haul and we'll always be cognizant of Marina and Bella's needs."

With encouragement and assistance, Leyba was able to focus her attention on learning all she could about Angelman Syndrome. She scoured the internet and called or wrote to every expert in the country.

Through research, Leyba knew Bella's best chances of learning to walk and talk were through early intervention.

Leyba's continued persistence to find treatment got Bella moved from a long waiting list into treatment services. She receives occupational, speech and physical therapy at Tucson Medical Center. At home, therapy is a full-time job for the Leyba-Lopez family.

"Marina has shown an amazing amount of strength," said Colonel Stroud. "She picked up the pieces and has fought through many obstacles to get her daughter the care she needs."

Bella is already showing marked improvement by starting to crawl and babble.

"Believe it or not life does go on," she said. "Ultimately your child is your child and just because they have this diagnosis that doesn't mean that's who they are.

"I look at her and she's just so happy. We take her for walks in her little car and she likes to stop and smell the flowers and touch the grass."

Sergeant Leyba's advice to all parents is simple. She says to follow natural instincts. "If there's something wrong with your child... if you think there's something wrong, find out. We rely a lot on our doctors because they are the professionals; but sometimes we don't give ourselves enough credit. And finally, don't take 'no' for an answer."

Leyba and Bella's wingmen will always share in their ups and downs said Colonel Stroud. "Marina is hopeful and we are hopeful," he said.