Highlands Ranch resident Steve Leonard reaches into Honduras to heal broken hearts

Dr. Steve Leonard is kind of a big deal in the world of pediatric cardiology. He’s one of only five surgeons in the state who can perform a delicate and arduous surgery called “the Norwood”—a procedure for babies who don’t get enough oxygen into their bodies because of a malformed cardiopulmonary system. 

Leonard was recently featured on CNN Headline News for operating on a Mongolian baby girl’s heart—and saving her life. The story drew national attention for Leonard, who donates his time and skill free of charge, and for Rocky Mountain Children’s Hospital, which provided the operating room and covered additional costs.

”I honestly don’t know why [it drew attention],” Leonard puzzles with his quiet, humble smile. “It [the procedure] isn’t anything we don’t do every day.”

Through his volunteer work overseas, Leonard has helped save countless lives. When his mentor and close friend, Dr. Hisashi Nikaidoh, tapped him in 2003 to be co-surgeon in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Leonard first thought was, “What do I need to do to make this work?”

Leonard had four children of his own in school at the time, but knew that ”accompanying Nikaidoh in Honduras for the 10-day mission would save even more lives and allow them to triage the most viable patients.”

What most struck Leonard was “the incredible need. I couldn’t have imagined the sheer number of young lives being affected by these heart defects—issues that are commonly treated by surgeons in the U.S.”

What started out as one trip in 2003 became 13 by the year 2015. “Each trip was around 10 days. The goal was to perform 20 surgeries a week, followed by several post-op days for observation,” says Leonard.

“The worst part was seeing these families carrying their gravely ill children into San Pedro Sula as we were about to leave,” explains Leonard. “Patients had been pre-selected and had already been treated by the time these new families would arrive at the end of our 10-day mission commitment. We had to turn them away.” Leonard says all he could do at that point was pray for the grief-stricken families.

Leonard and his colleague/mentor/friend Nikaidoh dreamed of establishing an independent, self-sustaining pediatric neonatal surgical program that could operate without the two surgeons’ physical presence. Their answer came when Dr. Victor Paz—the only pediatric cardiac surgeon in Honduras at the time—stepped up to head this program. Aligning with the foundation that Drs. Leonard and Nikaidoh worked so tirelessly to build, the program has kept the namesake of Leonard’s and Nikaidoh’s original mission in 2002: The Little Hearts Project.