He has survived two heart attacks and, more recently, prostate cancer. He broke both ankles jumping out of planes when he was in the Army. And his back gives him trouble, so much so that when he takes long hikes, one of his favorite pastimes, he makes sure to look at his feet so he won’t stumble over a pebble and send a jarring jolt up his spine.
But philanthropist and billionaire Mike Fernandez, 61, says none of that will stop him from walking more than 500 miles across the Pyrenees from France to Spain on the mountainous pilgrimage route known as The Way of St. James, or El Camino. The South Florida serial entrepreneur and father of five is using “the longest walk of my life” — about 40 to 50 days of travel between St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain — to raise $3 million for Miami Children’s Hospital.
MCH is where Daniella, the youngest of his two granddaughters, had life-saving heart surgery earlier this year.
“But it’s not just for my granddaughter I’m doing this,” Fernandez says. “I’m doing it for the lady I met in the waiting room.”
Fernandez, CEO of the private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners in Coral Gables, recounts how he struck up a conversation with a woman whose child was having her third heart surgery on the same day as his granddaughter’s surgery . The woman talked about the emotional and financial stresses a child’s illness imposes on the family.
“I’ve always known how blessed we are, but I also know how incredibly difficult it is for people who don’t have the same resources,” Fernandez says.
Known for his business acumen and ability to make money — Florida Trend called him Florida’s newest billionaire in its April issue — Fernandez approached MCH with the idea for a fundraising walk. He had just returned from a shorter, nine-day pilgrimage along St. James’ Way with daughter Michelle, a transforming “journey of devotion and prayer,” and he thought a longer trek would draw attention to a good cause.
Hospital officials were ecstatic. When he shared his idea with them, “my heart was filled with gratitude,” said Lucy Morillo-Agnetti, the hospital’s president and CEO, at a Friday press conference. The money is earmarked for the expansion of emergency services and a six-story tower to house intensive care units, among other things.
Once the hospital was on board with the “Walking Together for the Children Campaign,” Fernandez contacted his vast network of friends and business associates with characteristic zeal. In a matter of weeks, he received not only checks but also celebrity video endorsements including short segments by Miami Heat stars Ray Allen and Shane Battier, power couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and actor Martin Sheen, who starred in the 2010 film The Way, about a California doctor who completes the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes.
Friday, Fernandez appeared in a press conference in the hospital’s third floor playroom, flanked by celebrities and local leaders including Allen and Battier, actor Andy Garcia, singer Jon Secada, Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski and David Lawrence Jr. of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.
He will begin his walk Sept. 20 along the Camino Frances, the main route. His wife, Constance, an avid runner, will accompany him for the last nine days. Last year, more than 192,000 pilgrims walked, cycled or rode on El Camino.