In December 1983, 5-year-old Austin Highsmith found herself at Brenner Children’s Hospital with a serious diagnosis of post-orbital cellulitis. Years later, the now-famous actress and Winston-Salem native turned her story into an illustrated children’s book to inspire other children struggling with illnesses.
“My main hope for this book was that kids who have faced medical challenges would see themselves in the book,” says Highsmith, who’s known today for her role in both “Dolphin Tale” films. “I [once] saw a little girl in a hospital room and it was like looking at my baby pictures. She was the same age I was when I was in the hospital, and I knew right away that she had the same condition I had as a child. I told her mother I had the same thing when I was her daughter’s age. She started crying and repeatedly asked if I was ‘OK now,’ and was so relieved when I told her I was.”
The book, “The Miracle Tree,” details Highsmith’s hospital stay as a child, and how a very special Christmas tree brought her and her family hope. In opening up her experience to a wider audience, Highsmith can now extend hope to families across the nation.
And according to reviews on Amazon, it’s working.
“This story brought me to tears. It was so beautifully written that I could relate to it from a mother’s point of view,” writes Amazon reviewer DQ. “If you have had a little one in the hospital or know your little one will be there soon, this is a must buy. There is hope so much greater than you could ever imagine.”
Earlier this year during a book tour for “The Miracle Tree,” Highsmith made a pit stop in Winston-Salem, where she conducted multiple readings, including one at Bookmarks.
“The reading at Bookmarks will forever stand out as a huge mile marker in my life. There were so many people there that I haven’t seen in years, each one of them so incredibly dear to my heart,” she says. “It’s difficult to put into words just how much that night meant to me.”
Being at Bookmarks also reminded Highsmith of her younger days, and going to bookstores with her mom. She remembers begging her mom for the next book in both “The Boxcar Children” and “The Baby-Sitters Club” series. Highsmith says, “I hope bookstores like Bookmarks continue to thrive so kids can have that same experience.”
The goal of her book was always to inspire children struggling with health problems and the hospital visits being ill often entails.
“A friend of mine has a 4-year-old son who had two open heart surgeries before the age of 2. She sent me a video of her mom reading my book to her son, and while she was reading to him he gasped and pointed at the book and said, ‘That’s me.’ I couldn’t stop crying,” Highsmith says. “That video was a full circle moment and it reminds me to keep pushing forward.”
If you missed her readings in May, the actress hopes to visit Winston-Salem near the end of the year during the holidays to do more readings of “The Miracle Tree.”
“It will be so meaningful for me to share my story in the city and during the holiday [my illness] happened,” she says. “My only hope is the story continues to inspire other children and their families.”