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Zain’s Journey Ends: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s Son Dies at 26 After Lifelong Struggle With Cerebral Palsy

Zain’s Journey Ends: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s Son Dies at 26 After Lifelong Struggle With Cerebral Palsy

  • In several posts, talks and in his 2015 book, “Hit Refresh,” the Indian American executive has opened up about the impact the birth of his oldest child has had on him.

Zain Nadella, son of Microsoft executive chairman and CEO Satya Nadella and his wife Anu Nadella has died. He was 26 and was born with cerebral palsy. He is survived by his parents and sisters, Divya and Tara. 

The Nadella family has often spoken about their oldest child’s eclectic taste in music, his warm sunny smile, and the love he has for his family. According to a May 2021 blog on Seattle Children’s Hospital website, Zain’s journey of “struggle against tremendous adversity due to his medical condition, has shaped the Nadella family’s story to one of resilience, empathy, and determination.” 

Zain has received much of his treatment at the Children’s Hospital. Last year, the Nadellas, along with the hospital, established the Zain Nadella Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosciences, as part of Seattle Children’s Center for Integrative Brain Research. 

Anu Nadella is closely involved with the hospital as well. She co-chairs the hospital’s “It Starts With Yes,” campaign, an effort to raise $1 billion to improve children’s health. On the campaign website, she wrote about her own experiences as a parent. “Parenting was a learned art for me,” she said. “Yet I knew instinctively that the more I put into the well-being of my children, the better their long-term health would be.”

Zain Nadella with his sister Tara. Top photo, Zain with his parents Satya and Anu.

“Zain will be remembered for his eclectic taste in music, his bright sunny smile and the immense joy he brought to his family and all those who loved him,” Jeff Sperring, CEO of Children’s Hospital, wrote in a message to his Board, which was shared with Microsoft executives, according to new reports. 

Since taking on the CEO’s role in 2014, Nadella has focused the company on designing products to better serve users with disabilities and cited lessons he learned raising and supporting Zain, news reports said. In several posts, talks, and in his 2015 book, “Hit Refresh,” he has talked about how being Zain’s dad impacted him profoundly.

“Zain loves music and has wide-ranging tastes spanning eras, genres, and artists,” Nadella shares in one anecdote in the book.. “He likes everything from Leonard Cohen to Abba to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and wanted to be able to flip through these artists, filling his room with whatever music suited him at any given moment.” 

Since taking on the CEO’s role in 2014, Nadella has focused the company on designing products to better serve users with disabilities and cited lessons he learned raising and supporting Zain.

However, Zain wasn’t able to control the music himself, which became a source of frustration for him and his family. Three high school students heard about the problem and volunteered to build a Windows app that allowed Zain to tap his head against a sensor on the side of his wheelchair to easily flip through the music. “What freedom and happiness the empathy of three teenagers has brought to my son,” Nadella wrote.

When he visited Zain in the intensive care unit after he became Microsoft CEO in 2014, Nadella wrote how all of the medical devices were running Windows, connected to the cloud. “It was a stark reminder that our work at Microsoft transcended business, that it made life itself possible for a fragile young boy. It also brought a new level of gravity to the looming decisions back at the office on our cloud and Windows 10 upgrades. We’d better get this right, I recall thinking to myself.”

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In a 2017 LinkedIn post, he wrote that empathy for others runs deep in his wife, who he lovingly calls Anu. He credits her for teaching him to infuse empathy into his everyday actions. He said that Anu inspires him with her willingness to share more about her journey as a mom in the hope that it can help others.

After Anu moved to the U.S. they lived in a rented apartment near the Microsoft campus in the Seattle area. When the young couple was building careers as an engineer and an architect, respectively, they were also expecting their first child. They got busy decorating the nursery in their rented apartment near the Microsoft campus. But fate had other plans. 

“One night, during the thirty-sixth week of her pregnancy, Anu noticed that the baby was not moving as much as she was accustomed to. So we went to the emergency room of a local hospital in Bellevue. We thought it would be just a routine checkup, little more than new parent anxiety. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling annoyed by the wait times we experienced in the emergency room. But upon examination, the doctors were alarmed enough to order an emergency cesarean section. Zain was born at 11:29 p.m. on August 13, 1996, all of three pounds. He did not cry,” he wrote.

“Zain was transported from the hospital in Bellevue across Lake Washington to Seattle Children’s Hospital with its state-of-the-art Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Anu began her recovery from the difficult birth. I spent the night with her in the hospital and immediately went to see Zain the next morning. Little did I know then how profoundly our lives would change. Over the course of the next couple of years we learned more about the damage caused by in utero asphyxiation, and how Zain would require a wheelchair and be reliant on us because of severe cerebral palsy. I was devastated. But mostly I was sad for how things turned out for me and Anu.”

While Nadella was “devastated,” he wrote in his book that Anu’s “reaction to Zain’s birth was different.” He said his wife never asked why them. Instead, she always thought about what it meant for Zain and how they could best care for him, he wrote. “Watching her in those first few days, weeks and beyond taught me a lot.” Over time, Nadella said Anu helped him understand that nothing had happened to either of them, but it was Zain who was suffering. As his parents, it was up to them to do everything they could to improve his life.

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