Man Remembers Nancy Reagan for 'Comfort and Love' She Gave Him as a Sick Child

Former first lady got the boy a flight on Air Force One for surgery.

March 6, 2016, 8:39 PM

— -- A man who came from South Korea to the United States as a small child to receive life-saving open-heart surgery, said today he still remembers the "comfort and love" he felt from then first lady Nancy Reagan, who made sure the children traveled in style to the U.S.

Reagan, who died today at age 94, met the children during a visit to South Korea with President Ronald Reagan in 1983, when she visited a medical facility in Seoul dedicated to helping children with heart defects. The two small, seriously ill children, Ahn Ji Sook, 7, and Lee Kil Woo, 4, were able to get the surgery they needed through the Gift of Life program and an American woman who lived in South Korea.

According the Reagan Foundation, Reagan "insisted" on bringing the kids on Air Force One to the United States, where they would receive each undergo successful open heart surgery operations at St. Francis Hospital on Long Island in New York. Reagan visited the children shorty after their surgeries.

After their surgeries, Woo and Sook, who aren't blood relatives, were adopted by the same family in Arizona. They took the names Diana and Brett Halvorson.

Brett Halvorson, 37, told ABC News that there were about 900 children in South Korea on the waiting list for heart surgery. He said the Gift of Life organization wrote a letter to the White House asking president Reagan to bring some kids back during their trip to South Korea. Mrs. Reagan read the letter and she agreed to bring back two children.

"As I was only 4 years old, my memory of Mrs. Reagan is very vague," Halvorson, told ABC News today. "But what I do remember is that I felt comfort and love from a woman that was a complete stranger."

PHOTO: First Lady Nancy Reagan poses with Lee Kil Woo, 5, left, and Ahn Ji Sook, 8, Sept.4, 1984 in Los Angeles. The two Korean children came to the U.S. for heart surgery.
First Lady Nancy Reagan poses with Lee Kil Woo, 5, left, and Ahn Ji Sook, 8, Sept.4, 1984 in Los Angeles. The two Korean children came to the U.S. for heart surgery.
Liu/AP Photo

The children lived in Arizona until 1989 and then moved to the Seattle area with their new family.

"Around 2004, 2005, I was thinking about my life and life in general and what it all meant. .. One thing I knew was that I had to contact the people involved with my past and personally thank them," Halvorson wrote in a 2013 article for the Gift of Life program. "I thought it would be easiest to contact Mrs. Reagan."

Nancy Reagan Reunion in 2007

In 2007, Halvorson got a call from Reagan's assistant, who invited him to the Reagan Library, and on October 27 of that year, he was reunited with the former first lady, giving him a chance to thank her.

"Words can't describe my feelings to see her again in 2007 as I, at that time had recently found out the details of why and how she got involved with giving me a second chance to live. If I were to put into words my feelings, it would be grateful and blessed," Halvorson told ABC News.

PHOTO: Brett Halvorson with Nancy Reagan in 2007 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
Brett Halvorson with Nancy Reagan in 2007 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Courtesy Brett Halvorson

Shortly after his reunion with Reagan, he was able to reunite with his biological family in South Korea to make up for all the years missed with them.

Halvorson had worked in the family business and became an insurance broker, but now he works full-time for the Gift of Life program as the international spokesperson and ambassador.

"My mission is to raise awareness and help as many children as I can," he said. "Back when I was born in South Korea, it was a developing country and the hospitals and doctors here weren't able to facilitate children heart surgery. Now South Korea is considered to be one of the best countries for heart surgeries, so I have been bringing children from developing countries here for their heart surgeries. At Gift of Life, we use the metaphor, 'a drop of water creates a ripple.' I hope I can be one of those ripples that can spread out to other people."

Halvorson is now writing about a book about his life story, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, his journey from South Korea to Long Island to Arizona to Seattle and back to South Korea. He is also writing about the role the Gift of Life organization played in saving his life. He does not have a title yet.

"They provide free heart surgeries to children in developing countries who don't have the means to do the surgeries there," he said. "The main reason for my book is to raise awareness about the enormous need for children born with heart disease all around the world. I want to share my personal story to bring that awareness."

His sister, Diana, is now 40 and resides in Seattle.

As for the American, Harriet Hodges, who helped many Korean children get surgeries, she later got an award from the president for her work.

And as for Nancy Reagan, Halvorson said: "Whatever the statements about Nancy Reagan, whether it is good or bad, I can only express my opinion from my personal experience and that is, without her I would not be alive today. I know many people might not know the story of her saving my life but I hope that people will realize that for someone to be in some sort of power, their life is always scrutinized. Some might think she did this for political reasons, which might be true, only God knows, but whatever reason she did it for, I believe she reached out from her heart because she thought it was the right thing to do as a human being."

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