Leighton Leevard

Leighton: The Drag-Racing Actor

There are very few 7-year-old kiwi kids who can say they have sat on Oprah Winfrey's lap, or even claim the title of Junior Dragster Champion.  But Leighton Leevard is no ordinary kid.  He’s not only an aspiring young actor and drag racer but he is also the only child in New Zealand with a very rare heart defect.

Leighton was born with Coronary Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a complex and incredibly rare heart condition which resulted in his heart not getting the oxygen it needed.  As a result, he was always very sickly, and often turned blue.  Numerous visits to the doctor, A&E, and hospital failed to pick up the condition, and it wasn’t until he was 14 months old, doctors figured out what was going on. Roberta says it was a miracle they found it. 

“We were at the hospital yet again and a nurse who’d only just started work, listened to Leighton’s heart in a different area of the back.  She immediately picked up the loud, irregular sound.  Then, purely by chance, a top cardiac surgeon who was on the ward, was called in.”

So, after more than a year of sickness, a barrage of medical tests, Leighton was finally diagnosed. Roberta says it was a huge relief.

“As a mother there is nothing more terrifying than watching your child struggling to breath and turning blue. I always knew there was something wrong but kept being told he had a virus or the flu, and there was nothing wrong with his heart.  Emotionally it was exhausting and one of the hardest things was having to stand my ground.  I trusted my gut and never stopped questioning.” 

Roberta says if they hadn’t found the defect it would’ve been a very different story.  

“I was told that if the AVM hadn’t been found Leighton would’ve probably dropped dead while playing sport in his teenage years.’”

Once Leighton’s health issues were finally identified, Heart Kids came on the scene.

 “I remember meeting one of the family support workers in the ward and it was amazing.  As a single mum they were there to offer support, counselling and advice from the moment we were admitted. And the help hasn’t stopped.”

At 2 years old Leighton went through his first major heart surgery. Fortunately, surgeons were able to access the affected area by going up through Leighton’s groin, and his chest didn’t have to be cut open.  However, that didn’t make the procedure any easier.

“I will never forget having to pin Leighton down to the bed just before surgery and putting the gas mask on him to put him to sleep.  He was screaming and scared and I just wanted to cry.” 

The surgery has been a complete success but because his case is so unique Roberta says they’re uncertain if, or when, he will need more surgeries.  It is just a case of ‘wait and see’.

So, for the past 6 years Leighton has been living a normal life, if you can call his incredibly active life, normal.

While many kids his age spend their weekends riding scooters and playing Minecraft you’ll find Leighton either down on the drag racing track in Meremere or on the set of a movie or television ad.  So far, he has featured as a body double in two movies, Project Eden Volume 1, and the soon to be released Hollywood feature film, A Wrinkle in Time, starring Oprah Winfrey.  Roberta says for a child who is generally reserved and lacking in confidence, when he steps on to a movie set, he is a completely different child. 

“He takes direction really well, and just comes alive in front of a camera.  He’s a real natural.” 

And it is the same at the race track. “I have always been in to drag racing,” explains Roberta, “and ever since he was born he’s come to the track with me, even sleeping in a cot during weekend events,” she laughs.  “He got in behind the wheel when he turned 7 and as it turns out, he’s a little star, a real petrolhead!”

Leighton has just finished his first season taking 1st place in the DYO Junior Dragster Champs, and second place in the Heads-Up competition.  

So, it is only natural Leighton is this year’s poster boy for the Supercheap Heart Kids campaign which kicks off in May. Recently members of the Heart Kids team, and Supercheap crew spent an afternoon at the race track taking photos of Leighton and his racing car for the campaign.    

Susie McCarty said it was a great day out. “Leighton was completely at home in his car, chatting about his love of racing and what he wants to do with his life.  We couldn’t have found a more perfect person.”