INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning's NFL legacy is enshrined on Sunday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But Peyton created a legacy in Indianapolis that goes far beyond football and lives on at the children's hospital that bears his name.
Even before Peyton Manning Children's Hospital | St. Vincent Indianapolis opened in 2003, Peyton visited pediatric patients at the Ascension St. Vincent Hospital.
Kelsie Blackwell was 10 years old in the fall of 2002 when Peyton, 26, and in his fifth season with the Colts, came to her room for a visit. Kelsie was a patient at what would soon become Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. She had brain cancer, and her entire body was swollen from a reaction to chemotherapy.
"She looked like Violet, the little girl on 'Willy Wonka' who blew up, turned purple and looked like she was going to explode,” said Tawana Blackwell, Kelsie’s mother and also a registered nurse and manager of the NICU at Ascension St. Vincent Women’s Hospital. “That was Kelsie the day that Peyton Manning came to visit. She had lost all of her hair. She was all swollen."
"Being able to see him come in and actually sit down and talk with me and spend time ... I actually didn't even mind how I looked,” Kelsie said. “He just made me feel like a normal child, like nothing was different or anything, that there was nothing wrong."
Peyton was making hospital visits with a pair of high school football players. Tawana said the boys were understandably taken aback and uncomfortable seeing Kelsie in her swollen condition — but not Peyton.
"He never hesitated,” Tawana said. “He walked in. He introduced himself to Kelsie. He shook her hand. He sat down next to her. He started interacting with her and talking with her and just made the visit very special."
That caring visit from the Colts quarterback, when Kelsie was at her worst physical appearance, made a lasting impression on her entire family. Kelsie is 29 years old now and cancer-free. She still cherishes the photo and the hat Peyton signed for her that day.
"I was always a Colts fan but definitely after that, became an even bigger one,” Kelsie said. “Even when he switched teams, I still followed and loved being a fan of his."
Kelsie and Tawana both work at the Ascension St. Vincent Women's Hospital, just around the corner from Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. Kelsie has worked in the materials and supply department for nine years.
The Blackwell family admires Peyton's ongoing commitment to the hospital.
"He's not just someone that has his name up on a building and never shows up,” Kelsie said. “He still makes sure that he stays connected to this aspect of his life, into what we're doing here. To me and my family, he'll always be special because of that."
Peyton Manning Children's Hospital is celebrating 18 years of the special relationship with the Colts-now-hall-of-fame-number-18 quarterback. The hospital has grown to include 46 private inpatient rooms, 23 pediatric intensive care unit beds and a 17-bed dedicated Pediatric Emergency Department. The 97-bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is the largest in the state of Indiana.
Since 2008, Peyton and his wife, Ashley, have served as the honorary chairs for the annual Celebration for Caring Gala, which has raised over $14 million to support patients and programs at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. Peyton secures a top country music artist every year for the event, donates items and experiences to auction, and is hands-on with the planning.
Peyton continues to visit the hospital, engaging with patients and their families without seeking attention or acknowledgement. He also makes numerous patient phone calls and videos. Peyton hosts a holiday party each year for patients, families and hospital workers.
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