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.”
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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.
Fernandez plans to post photos and videos to a website so others can keep tabs on him during his journey. Already prepared: an 18-pound backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag, three changes of clothes, a first aid kit, sunscreen, insect bite repellant, packs for blisters, pocket knife, flashlight and energy bars. At his home he shows off the hat and the water resistant pants he’ll use as well as two telescopic walking sticks.
He figures he’ll cover about 15 miles a day, leaving at 6 a.m. and turning in at 4 p.m. The total number of steps? About 3 million — hence, the effort to raise the same amount.
Earlier in the summer, Fernandez spent about a month training and hiking in Utah with his wife and an Argentine guide. He broke in four pairs of hiking boots. At home he stretches 15 minutes every morning and twice a day straps himself into an inversion table to align his spine and open spaces between his herniated disks. He walks around his seven-acre property with a vest that can hold up to 40 pounds of metal weights.
Fernandez also got a good introduction to St. James’ Way when he hiked it in May with his daughter.
“It rained every single day,” he recalls. “We were soaked all the time and it was cold. There was hail and sometimes we had snowflakes.”
Though he ended up developing pneumonia upon his return, the days spent with his only daughter, a law school student with “a tremendous social conscience,” gave him lots of time to contemplate. He knew he wanted to eventually complete the entire hike.
Though this is the first time any donor has undertaken such a novel fundraiser for the hospital, MCH has been the recipient of Fernandez’s past generosity. The entrepreneur has served on the hospital foundation board and last year, through the Miguel B. Fernandez Family Foundation, he donated $5 million for the creation of a new trauma center.
Fernandez figures he has donated more than $100 million to charities in Miami-Dade. “Those Jesuits got in my head,” he jokes, referring to the Catholic religious order that ran the high school he attended in the Northeast.
Though he says he is not particularly religious, he sees the Pyrenees pilgrimage as an expression of gratitude for what the hospital, and the community at large, has given his family.
“Writing a check is a lot easier than this,” he said. “But now I’m giving my time and that’s what’s most valuable to me at this point in my life.”