The boy who played a miniature Darth Vader in the most shared Super Bowl commercial of all time has since become a pediatric healthcare advocate, all while facing his own serious heart problems.
Max Page captured the attention of families around the country when he starred as a boy dressed up as the iconic Star Wars villain for a Volkswagen Super Bowl ad in 2011. It shows then 7-year-old Max desperately trying to summon “The Force” to move items around the family home. Max comes up disappointed until he walks up to his father’s VW Passat parked in the driveway. After Max concentrates for a few moments, the vehicle suddenly turns on and he has a priceless reaction—all thanks to dad secretly giving him a helping hand.
“It was more than I could have ever imagined, especially at 7,” Max Page, now 13, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t even know what a Super Bowl commercial meant, I didn’t understand the magnitude it would have. For it to become something of this caliber is just awesome.”
While the commercial tugged at the heartstrings of viewers for its ability to evoke nostalgia and childhood wonderment, many didn’t know the young actor they were watching was going through his own heart issues.
Max was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart condition that causes oxygen-poor blood to leave the heart and flow through the rest of the body. It is a rare condition that occurs in about five of every 10,000 babies, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Just a few months after the Super Bowl commercial aired, Max’s pulmonary valve needed to be replaced with a porcine valve. He underwent the procedure again three years later (this time with a bovine’s valve), and today, the valve has narrowed to the point it is limiting the amount of blood that can get to his lungs. This is causing Max to grow weak during activities.
“I don’t feel terrible, I still feel good, but I’m slowly declining,” Max, of Orange County, California, says. “They can see stuff in tests that signals it’s time.”
On February 5, the day after the New England Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, Max will undergo surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Heart Institute to replace his pulmonary valve with an adult-sized human valve, or a manmade tissue valve. This type of valve can last up to two decades, the hospital says. Max underwent his first when he was just 3 months old, and this will be his thirteenth.
“I’m scared, I’m nervous, but just having all of that experience, I know how good I’m good to feel on the other side of the surgery,” he says. “I just keep looking forward to that, to the day I can do everything and feel great.”
Max—who has starred in other commercials and recently wrapped up a role in a horror movie—has become an advocate for Children’s Hospital as he struggles with the heart issues he knows so well. He’s even raised more than $31,000 to help children with heart problems through a CHLA donation page and recently advocated for the passing of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), which POTUS reauthorized for another six years.
“I try to raise as much money as possible because being on the inside,” adds Max. “I know how great CHLA is, and there are so many things the hospital could get that could take things to a new level and save a lot of kids like me.”
Max says he will be watching the Super Bowl as he prepares for his surgery the next day (he’s rooting for Philly), and he’s looking forward to watching the Winter Olympics and playing video games with friends during his two-month recovery process. While he is nervous about the rapidly approaching day, Max keeps a calm and collected attitude when talking about it—he knows this likely won’t be the last surgery he’ll ever face.
His mother, Jennifer Page, says she is proud of the difference Max has made for children facing heart conditions at Children’s Hospital and beyond. She admits, though, it has been emotionally draining watching for her to watch her young son go through so many surgeries, but she is inspired by how he has faced these difficulties.
RELATED VIDEO: Mom Creates Special Baby Doll for Daughter with Rare Facial Birthmark: It ‘Looks Just Like Her’
“You get to the hospital, which you’ve been through the doors a thousand times, and it takes a 100 percent of your will to walk through the door because you just don’t want to go,” she says. “As a mother, you’re just willing all your love to him through the air because you can’t be there with him. There is a lot of pain between now and then—we all know that—but our deal is, you can be down, you just can’t stay there.”