Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell cooks breakfast with his wife, Leighanne, and son Baylee, 3, at their home in Alpharetta. At age 23, Littrell was told he needed a second heart surgery if he wanted to live to see the day he was a father.
By VIRGINIA ANDERSON
As a Backstreet Boy, Brian Littrell implores an imaginary girl to "quit playing games with my heart" in one of the band's biggest hits.
As a grown-up man, Littrell — who resides in Alpharetta — helps real children with real broken hearts — and plans to make his charity program, Healthy Heart Club for Kids, a nationwide effort.
Littrell, and his wife, Leighanne, are expanding their program that Littrell founded in 1998 in his hometown of Lexington, Ky., only months after he underwent open-heart surgery for a congenital heart defect that was slowly killing him.
It was the second heart surgery he'd had; the first took place when he was 5. Doctors told his family then that he would not live.
"I'm a walking miracle," Littrell said last week while making breakfast burritos with son Baylee, 3, and Leighanne in the kitchen of their Alpharetta home. "I just want to give something back. We've been so blessed."
Because Littrell knows firsthand of the pain, fear and expense that heart surgery in a child engenders in a family, he wanted to do something to help children with heart disease — a number higher than many might expect. Congenital heart defects are the No. 1 birth defect in children, according to the American Heart Association.
Littrell was born with a heart murmur, and his surgery at age 5 was a miracle in itself.
He was accidentally run over by his older brother Harold on a bicycle. He didn't look particularly bad, Littrell said, except for the tire marks on his stomach. Parents Harold Jr. and Jackie took him to the hospital, just to get him checked out.
No one knew that his murmur was threatening his life.
As it turned out, doctors discovered he had a staph infection in his heart — caused in part by the murmur.
They told his parents that children with bacterial endocarditis do not survive. Jackie and Harold Littrell were devastated.
"I remember crying in my mother-in-law's arms," Jackie Littrell said one day last week. "I cried out to God, and she said, 'He is not yours. He belongs to God. And you have to be able to give him back.' And so I prayed for the grace to let go of him, and I knew that one way or the other, it was going to be OK, because God was in control."
As Brian got better that summer, his mother still prayed for his life, she said.
"That doesn't mean I didn't bargain and beg, because I did. I sat up there in that hospital with death and dying all around us, and I prayed, 'God, please don't let it come into this room,' " Jackie Littrell said.
The family went through the agony of possibly losing Brian again when he was 23, just as the Backstreet Boys blasted into stratospheric levels of teen popularity. The group's "Millennium" CD had just been released*, and the pressures for them to tour were enormous.
Brian and the Boys were doing six, eight, 10 shows a week, dancing for two hours at a time onstage, catching the next bus or plane immediately afterward, and repeating the process all over again within hours.
Meanwhile, Brian was falling asleep midsentence during routine conversations.
A checkup with his cardiologist revealed an enlarged heart. His doctor told him he needed surgery — fast.
"I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' " Littrell recalled. "And he said, 'If you ever want to live to be a father of your own, you've got to have this surgery.' "
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., doctors discovered that Littrell had a hole in his heart "the size of a silver dollar."
Financial aid, education
As soon as he recovered, Littrell felt called to do something to help families of children with heart disease, he said. That fall, the Brian Littrell Healthy Heart Club for Kids was born in Lexington.
It has two purposes. It helps pay expenses for low- and middle-income families whose children are having heart surgery, and it sponsors eight-week educational classes for children referred by a doctor for nutritional information and exercise programs.
Atlanta will be one of the cities, but likely not until next year.
Now that he is a parent, Littrell feels even more appreciative of what his parents went through.
Lexington, renowned for its thoroughbreds and bluegrass blue bloods, is home to horses that enjoy more luxury than millions of humans could ever dream of. The Littrells were not part of that set, however. Harold Littrell worked the line at the local IBM and, later, the Lexmark plant. While the Littrells had good insurance, they did not have a lot of extra income.
"I was a liability for a long time," Brian Littrell said. "And I admire my father and my mother so much for everything they went through and what they did for me."
Littrell said he realizes he lives a dream life with Leighanne and Baylee. He wants to help other families who might be in the situation he and his family were in years ago.
Now that his Healthy Heart Club has helped several Kentucky families, the Littrells decided they wanted to expand. With the help of the Mayo Clinic, which screens potential families for the foundation, they want to identify other families who may need surgical assistance funds and to put the educational model in place in other cities.
Families in Kentucky who already have been touched by the Healthy Heart Club's surgical assistance fund will be forever grateful for Littrell's help.
Hayden Brown — who turns 9 months old on Tuesday, would not be alive were it not for surgery in November at the Cleveland Clinic. And while his mother had insurance through her employer, the family had little money for travel to Cleveland, hotels and meals.
The Healthy Heart Club fixed all that.
"That surgery meant life and death to him," said Hayden's father, Stacey, a farmer. "It's bad enough to have to go through this, but then to have to think about going out of state and the money, I don't know how we could have done it without them."
Tracey Daugherty credits the Healthy Heart Club for Kids with saving her sanity when her son, Dylan, now 3, had to have surgery on Oct. 29, 2002, when he was about 8 months old.
"I could never express my gratitude to those people enough," said Daugherty, a nurse in Strunk, Ky. "During that time, the last thing you want to worry about is money," she said. "And they took away the money worries so we could focus just on him."
And that, Littrell said, is sweet music to his ears.
"That's why I'm here," Littrell said. "God put me here not just to be a Backstreet Boy — but to try to be a good influence."
*Lies! He had heart surgery pre-Millennium, post-eponymous debut
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via backstreetboys
I realize this stuff is unbearably wholesome for some of you. Y'all are stuck sucking it up and fast-forwarding to the next Jessica Simpson post, I guess.