Back home in Garden City, New York, Brendan – the son of her daughter, Liza Huber and her husband Alex Hesterberg – had just been born nine weeks early, weighing just 4 lbs., 10 oz.
But Lucci, the star of All My Children (and more recently Devious Maids) and always a fan favorite, never revealed that her grandson was hooked up to a ventilator, unable to breathe on his own.
“It was always Liza’s story to tell,” says Lucci, 68. “This is her child, this is her little boy.”
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In this week’s PEOPLE, Lucci and Huber, the founder and CEO of Sage Spoonfuls, a line of products designed for parents to make healthy food for their kids, open up about how Brendan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 2 years old. “I don’t want to hide it,” says Huber, 40, a mom of four. “I want him to feel good and proud. That was my light bulb.”
Huber will never know exactly the cause of her son’s cerebral palsy. (The neurological disorder is often caused by a brain injury in utero or during birth.)
After he was born, Brendan stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for six weeks before he was able to come home. At the time, Lucci was flying back and forth cross country to comfort her daughter and be there for her grandson. “I didn’t want to leave her,” recalls Lucci. “When I would come back from L.A. on the red eye on a Tuesday night after the show, I’d take a brief nap and then go to the hospital with Liza and stay with her and then dance with Tony [Dovolani] in the evening. With Dancing with the Stars, they miraculously send your dance teacher with you wherever you need to be. So Tony and I and my husband [Helmet Huber] were The Three Musketeers, on the plane all the time together.”
Lucci did her best to focus. “I tried to deal with each thing I needed to do at the moment,” she recalls. “As much as I thought I was hopefully dealing with it the best I could, I was worried about the steps.”
Meanwhile, her family was rooting her. “It was surreal,” recalls Huber. “Whenever Brendan would be unplugged [from the monitors], we’d wheel him into the parents room [of the neonatal intensive care unit] and watch TV. By the fifth week, even the nurses were like ‘Stop voting for her! She needs to come home!’ We were beside ourselves.”
“My poor mother was also beside herself,” says Huber laughing. “Even she was saying ‘Stop voting for me!’ We were all so happy when she was voted off. We needed her home!”
Now a 7-year-old first grader, Brendan is an inspiration for both his mom and grandmother. “When you look at this little boy who is living his life, it’s a reminder to never give in to adversity,” says Lucci.
Her daughter agrees. “I told him everyone has something, that this is something he will have for the rest of his life but it doesn’t define him,” says Huber. “We came up with this saying: ‘My legs are tight, so what?’ He is just as smart and just as handsome and just as kind. He’s sweet, but he’s also very tough. He is my hero.”
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For more revelations from Susan Lucci, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday