Zain Nadella is 24 years old. When his family talks about him, they light up. They speak about his eclectic taste in music, his warm sunny smile, and the love he has for his family. Zain has had to struggle against tremendous adversity due to his medical condition. His journey has shaped the Nadella family’s story to one of resilience, empathy, and determination to realize the promise of a brighter future for children with neurological conditions.
Hours after Zain was born, he was rushed to Seattle Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Born with cerebral palsy, he fought for survival in those first few months and required life-saving treatment. His parents, Satya and Anu Nadella, put their trust in the doctors and care providers at Seattle Children’s. Zain’s birth story was not what they had imagined. He was born weighing just 3 pounds and suffered asphyxiation in utero. When they found themselves surrounded by beeping machines and an army of healthcare providers, their focus shifted.
“Like our baby, I too was in survival mode,” Anu said. “I was focused on taking one day at a time.”
Today, Zain still faces many challenges. Zain’s health issues have only intensified as he has grown. He is legally blind and is affected by spastic quadriplegia and has required complex care at Seattle Children’s. The Nadella family likens the hospital to a second home.
“What we saw at Seattle Children’s, from the NICU staff to all the care teams we were subsequently involved with, was a united mission to help every child live the healthiest and most fulfilling life possible. Everyone who surrounded Zain was there to help him thrive,” Anu said.
When Tara Nadella, Zain’s younger sister, reflects on time spent at Seattle Children’s with her brother, she thinks about the warm welcome she received from Zain’s care team and the unyielding commitment they exemplified when caring for him. Her first taste of onion rings was in the Seattle Children’s cafeteria, and she recalls countless holidays and parties her family attended with Zain while he was an inpatient. It was not a typical childhood experience, but it is one she recognizes as invaluable.
The lessons Zain has taught her are numerous. Tara sees the world through a lens of inclusion. Her brother uses a wheelchair, and so it’s hard for her to look at a building or playground and ignore a design that doesn’t work for a child with special needs.
“Zain’s lessons have made me passionate about ensuring that every voice is heard and respected, because a quieter voice isn’t a lesser voice,” she said.
Like her parents, Tara is excited and hopeful about the future and what it holds for children like Zain.
As a family, the Nadellas have experienced firsthand the tremendous challenges families face when caring for a child with special needs, and it’s driven their focus to make a difference through philanthropic support.
Anu recalls those sleepless nights at Seattle Children’s and long hours patiently sitting in the waiting areas. She was surrounded by families who, like her, trusted in the care their child was receiving.
Committing to hope, care and cures
During an early visit to Seattle Children’s, Anu vividly remembers walking into the Emergency Department and seeing a sign that still, to this day, resonates deeply with her. It read: “We care for every child, regardless of their ability to pay.”
Those words inspire her.
“That is the quintessence of empathy that families and patients look for in hospitals and caregivers. Seattle Children’s has that in its DNA,” Anu said.
It’s one of the reasons the Nadellas have generously committed $15 million to Seattle Children’s to support precision medicine neurosciences, mental and behavioral health care, and to help provide equitable access to care for every community.
“Having access to world-class care for a child with complex medical needs is so important,” Anu said. “Philanthropy drives innovation in pediatric research and healthcare, especially in areas like neurological conditions. One day, treating them may be like treating a broken arm. That’s the dream.”
Anu serves as chair of Seattle Children’s Foundation Board of Trustees and co-chair of the Neuroscience Campaign Initiative Committee.
Free-standing children’s hospitals like Seattle Children’s make up just 1% of U.S. hospitals, but their specialized training, research and care is critical to serving the unique needs facing children and families. Support from the community drives innovation in pediatric healthcare and ensures Seattle Children’s will be available for children today and in the future.
“We’re changing the trajectory of research and impacting the lives of children for generations to come wherein the impact of an illness or injury can be minimized and the child is able to thrive and reclaim their childhood,” Anu said.
Ensuring a better future for all
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a general term for when a person has permanent differences in how they move and control their muscles. The differences are caused by an injury to a child’s developing brain. The brain injury can happen before, during or after birth. Risk factors can include low birth weight and pregnancy or birth complications.
Unfortunately, some research shows that there is racial disparity with regard to severe cerebral palsy, due to inequity in access to prenatal care. In one study, Black infants were 29% more likely to suffer CP than white infants. It is imperative that care and research aims to address racial disparities faced in today’s healthcare system.
Providing equitable care is the cornerstone of Seattle Children’s mission, and it is foundational to the Nadellas’ vision for the future of neurosciences.
“Our most promising opportunity in advancing neurosciences research is to improve care for every child with a neurological condition or brain injury and in turn, to provide equitable access to care for every family and community,” said Anu.
Moving therapies forward
The Nadellas chose to make such a meaningful philanthropic investment because of its promise to move the entire field of pediatric neurosciences and next-generation therapies forward.
“We’re incredibly grateful for Anu and Satya’s tremendous generosity and commitment to improving the lives of children and teens with neurological conditions and brain injuries,” said Dr. Jeff Sperring, CEO of Seattle Children’s. “Together, we will not only work to better understand the complexities of the developing brain, but also we’ll improve the lives of young people in our community through greater access to mental health services.”
The Nadella family’s generous commitment supports It Starts With Yes: The Campaign for Seattle Children’s, an initiative with a bold vision to transform children’s health. The campaign addresses some of the biggest unmet needs in pediatric health today by supporting breakthroughs in precision medicine for neurosciences, providing access to youth mental health care, developing next-generation cell and gene therapies, and delivering high-quality, culturally responsive, equitable primary care at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC) locations.
Precision medicine represents a revolution in how children with neurological conditions and brain injuries will be diagnosed and treated. Seattle Children’s is at the forefront of this approach. It means a child’s care team is made up of clinicians, data scientists, engineers and researchers who work together to provide lifesaving care, identify the root causes of neurological conditions and move beyond treating symptoms and behaviors to develop better treatments to meet each child’s unique needs. Parents and caregivers are an active part of a child’s care team, and they are listened to and valued every step of the way. Like an orchestra, experts at Seattle Children’s bring different points of view together, and their collaboration creates a symphony that accelerates research to bring improved treatments to patients who have little time to wait.
In Zain’s honor, Seattle Children’s will also establish the Zain Nadella Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosciences as part of Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research (CIBR). Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research brings together a diverse group of researchers working to integrate knowledge at the genetic, molecular, cellular, network and behavioral levels to better understand neuronal functions and brain-related conditions.
Philanthropic support is especially critical for psychiatry and behavioral medicine, an area that affects countless families, but historically has not received the philanthropic attention it deserves. In this past year, hospitals across the state have seen an alarming increase in mental health related visits to emergency departments and more of those children need admission to an inpatient unit. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington state has seen one in four youth under 18 struggle with suicidal ideation – an increase from one in ten in 2018. This increase in need for services has put a significant burden on Washington state’s mental health system.
Seattle Children’s has developed innovative programs to address the critical need in the community, but these programs are largely funded through private donations. Compared to other specialty areas, pediatric behavioral health has been stymied by inadequate reimbursements for care as well as community stigma. The Nadellas’ gift will enable Seattle Children’s to not only reach more children in crisis, but also to help families take preventive measures before their child is in crisis.
With philanthropic support, Seattle Children’s aims to target the root causes of mental health conditions and commit to improving long-term outcomes, open more doors to care at Seattle Children’s, especially for youth in crisis, and build upstream, culturally responsive approaches focused on prevention, early intervention and resilience with a broad range of community partners.
“Our lives have been shaped by the needs of our children,” Anu said. “To me, this gift honors Zain’s journey and gives us hope for the future.”