Every one of the 350-plus place settings at The Country Club at Mirasol during this year’s Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation Golden Heart Luncheon featured a walnut wrapped in a gift bag. The odd party favor drew much discussion.
Then, a video aired. It told the tale of a premature baby in Puerto Rico who needed life-saving surgery in the throes of Hurricane Maria. The 4.5-pound infant had an abnormal connection between his right ventricle and his pulmonary artery, and the defect impeded blood flow to his lungs. Without an operation, he was going to die.
The Nicklaus Children’s Hospital LifeFlight program transported little Liam to Miami, where Dr. Kristine Guleserian, a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, reconstructed his heart three-dimensionally and printed out a model. It was the size of a walnut.
The surgery was successful, and Liam soon will celebrate his second birthday in his family’s rebuilt home.
“We live for those success stories,” says foundation chairwoman Barbara Nicklaus, wife of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, to the crowd gathered for the fundraiser. “And challenges like Liam push us to our goal of being a global hospital.”
Pediatric patients from 119 countries and all 50 states have passed through the doors of the flagship facility to receive first-class critical care.
“We’re reaching our goal that way,” Nicklaus says. “We’ve come a long way from the sleepy little foundation we founded in 2004.”
Prior to introducing the luncheon’s keynote speaker, Emmy Award-winning actress Katherine Heigl, the beloved philanthropist highlighted the hospital milestones made possible by proceeds from the annual affair. First, pediatric heart transplants will be performed on-site in six operating rooms to be constructed this fall.
“It’s very exciting,” Nicklaus says. “It’s just great for parents.”
Second, pregnant mothers with complications will be able to give birth in one of 10 designated suites.
“So this puts the mother and baby in the same hospital and eliminates them being separated when, oftentimes, the baby has to be flown to another facility,” Nicklaus says. “We’re thrilled that we got that through in Tallahassee.”
In addition, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital has opened 14 outpatient centers across South Florida, including one at Legacy Place in Palm Beach Gardens equipped with 17 subspecialists practicing everything from cardiology to nephrology. With the foundation approaching its 15th anniversary, the other achievements are too innumerable to list.
“The foundation has just exploded,” Nicklaus says. “When something happens it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, how did that ever come about?’ It sort of goes back to we want to be where the children are, and we feel so blessed.”
Nicklaus welcomed to the stage a woman affectionately called Katie, someone she knows as much more than a star of the big screens. The 40-year-old who famously played Dr. Izzie Stevens on the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” is a proponent of organ donation following the death of her teenage brother in a car accident. The female lead in the films “Knocked Up,” “27 Dresses” and “The Ugly Truth” also is a proponent of adoption, having grown up with an adoptive sister named Meg. Married to country music artist Josh Kelley, the couple has two adoptive daughters, Nancy Leigh Mi-Eun and Adalaide Marie Hope.
Nancy Leigh, or Naleigh, came into the world with a heart defect—like Liam—and underwent a similar life-saving surgery prior to leaving her South Korean birthplace for the United States. Today, she is a happy and healthy girl who inspired the song “Naleigh Moon,” written and recorded by Kelley.
“So many children do not find forever homes because they are on the special-needs list,” Nicklaus says. “Naleigh is one of the lucky ones. The theme for our luncheon is ‘Healing Hearts Around the World.’ Doesn’t that just fit in perfectly?”
“Naleigh Moon” set the stage for Heigl’s address, stirring sighs and sniffles from the audience as it played.
“To know that there are incredible people like all of you and Barbara and Jack who make a difference for children like Naleigh when a difference might not have been able to be made in any other way is extraordinary and puts it all into a real perspective,” Heigl says, beginning her poignant presentation. “Naleigh, thank God, is in perfect health with a perfectly healed heart.”
South Korea was Heigl’s sister Meg’s birthplace, as well. When Heigl was old enough to understand Meg was adopted and not, as she jokes, “the product of a love affair my mother had with a handsome Asian man,” it charted the course of her adult life.
“I grew up in a family that was made whole by adoption,” she says. “I realized I, too, would one day make the family I created whole through adoption.”
When she was in her mid-20s, Heigl met the man who would help her achieve her dream. Two years into their marriage, Naleigh became their bundle of joy. Adalaide joined the family three years after that.
“At this point in my life, there was no other option for me than adoption,” she says. “I can’t tell you exactly why I felt this way, why I felt so strongly about becoming a mother by adoption first—I have a few personal reasons, a few professional—but mostly I just felt undeniably called to reach my hands out to the world and catch hold of a nobody’s child.”
The paper trail was endless, the red tape frustrating and the social worker visits taxing—especially on Kelley. Heigl says he admitted he was afraid of not being able to love “a nobody’s child.”
“By September of that year, I put that baby into his arms,” she says, choking up. “What happened was pure magic—for him, for her and for me. I watched my husband be transformed from a sometimes-selfish, sometimes-restless musician into a steady, devoted father. It was instantaneous. It was the blink of an eye. It was the exhale of a breath. It was as if it had always been.”
She says she had no doubts about loving her daughter—whether she came from another continent or from her womb—though she did not realize the magnitude of that love.
“I could not have known my own sometimes-selfish, sometimes-restless ways would be transformed in an instant, as well,” Heigl says. “This child made me a mother, made my husband a father, made us both a more profoundly better version of ourselves than anything else ever could.”
The luncheon raised a record $521,000 to further the mission of the foundation, supporting innovations focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of childhood illnesses.
“I am truly honored that Jack and Barbara asked Josh and me here to talk about the matters of our hearts,” Heigl says. “Adoption is clearly something we are incredibly passionate about, and if we can influence even one family to change the course of their lives and add a nobody’s child through adoption, well, then we rejoice.”
As the event came to a close, Kelley strummed his guitar and sang “Cowboy Love Song,” an ode to Adalaide.
“I’m rewarded every day by the unconditional love I get back from my children,” Kelley says. “They both fell right into my arms as if by design from the heavens. I’m very grateful to my wife for opening my eyes. It saddens me to think about all the voiceless and innocent children around the world and, hopefully, my and Katie’s story will drive more awareness.”