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July 8, 2017

Dale Jr. finds and gives comfort in Nationwide Children’s Hospital visits

RELATED: See behind-the-scenes pictures from the event

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dale Earnhardt Jr. walks into one of the conference rooms Thursday at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Immediately, he spots an old friend: Maddie Delaney, who is wearing a No. 88 blue T-shirt.

Earnhardt walks over to her, kneels down to her wheelchair and wraps her in a big hug.

Like many 10-year-olds, Maddie loves horseback riding, Tae Kwon Do, singing and swimming. Earnhardt met her during one of his first hospital visits and has created a special bond with her through conversation and video games.

Maddie’s cerebral palsy condition makes her wheelchair-bound, but it doesn’t make for any lack in personality.

“I’m freaking the heck out, dude,” she says to Earnhardt as he presents her with a pair of hot pink racing gloves as one of the five Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Patient Champions for this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt. Jr. laughs with a patient, Maddie Delaney, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Jessica Ruffin |

Earnhardt grins.

“They’re great kids,” Earnhardt tells “Maddie’s this incredible person with this really crazy personality, really cool person. They’re all kind of like that if you get that out of them.”

Earnhardt made his fifth visit in three years to the hospital Thursday, touring the neonatal intensive care unit and rehab center with crew chief Greg Ives and several members of the No. 88 team in tow.

“It’s like visiting a friend’s house,” Earnhardt says. “I feel very comfortable here.”

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One of the first stops for Earnhardt & Co. is the neonatal intensive care unit. There, Earnhardt meets baby Veronica, who was born three months early, weighing about two pounds. Her due date was the day prior to the visit.

Today, Veronica weighs six pounds, 11 ounces and is doing well in the hospital’s neonatal program, which uses the most advanced technology available to care for approximately 3,000 babies annually in its seven Central Ohio locations.

“She’s our miracle baby,” Veronica’s mother says to Earnhardt, as her father holds her to his chest.

“It took a whole army, I think it was 12 people,” Veronica’s father said. He looks down and softly kisses Veronica’s little head.

The survival rate at 23 weeks old was 10 percent a few years ago; today at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the survival rate has jumped to 78 percent. That’s a testament to the research and technology that the hospital has worked to achieve, says Dr. Edward Shepherd, who is the pediatric expert at the hospital.

“This is a hospital where any baby can be taken care of, no matter how sick,” Dr. Shepherd says.

Several holistic methods to soothe babies have been used with success here. There’s the kangaroo care method, where a parent strips the baby down and holds them close to his or her bare chest; the skin-to-skin contact helps to steady the baby’s heart rate and improve breathing. There’s also the musical pacifier, where parents can record themselves singing and play that recording into the pacifier, which helps premature babies remember how to suck, a basic function.

Earnhardt’s crew chief Ives is particularly impressed; he asks multiple questions about the hospital’s evolving technology throughout the tour.

But Ives also has a personal connection with that neonatal ICU.

“It’s refreshing but also exciting to see the ability of technology to be used in a manner to help kids, to help children, but also to help families,” Ives tells later that day. “When you walk in here, you see hope. …

“(My wife and I) lost our second eight weeks after conception, so it’s really surreal to see how things work out and it kind of hits home a little bit, as well. Only being eight weeks, it’s different than being born premature for sure, but you see what the families go through and the emotional state that they can get in. Not only from having to deal with the situation at hand but from a financial burden and having to relocate. There’s some that were from Texas and New York and all over the place that come here to find that hope.

“So that’s what’s neat about it. Just knowing that some of them look up to us and what we do. It’s like, ‘Man, you guys are saving lives and healing families and we’re just racing cars.’ “

But for these children, racing cars is pretty cool — especially for someone like Dale Jr. superfan Carter, whom Earnhardt meets next.

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Carter is smiling as Earnhardt approaches his hospital room.

The sport’s most popular driver kneels down beside the 7-year-old’s wheelchair and gives him an allotment of presents, including a No. 88 die cast that Earnhardt signs right there with his signature silver Sharpie. Carter is a patient at the hospital who is battling a brain tumor.

“I got you a hat, too. Don’t know if you want to put it on with such a cool Mohawk,” Earnhardt says, referring to Carter’s bright red Mohawk hairstyle.

Carter immediately puts on the hat.

Earnhardt then kneels down again and has a private conversation with Carter for a couple minutes. Carter is quiet, but his mom assures the group he will talk excitedly about his favorite driver as soon as he leaves.

“When I see those kids … you get reminded of how much you take for granted really in life,” Earnhardt says later. “Most of the time, when you talk with kids, they’re very shy, kind of closed off, you don’t really get to interact with them as much as you’d like. Like Carter upstairs, his mom’s like, ‘He’s going to talk like crazy when you leave.’

“But after a couple of visits, if I see Carter again, he will talk like crazy, because he’s like, ‘Oh I remember this guy, this is a safe, trusted interaction.’ You sometimes come here and see the same kids and you do build these relationships.”

The Victory Bell that patients ring when they graduate from the rehab unit. Jessica Ruffin |

The relationships Earnhardt has built with the doctors, children and families at Nationwide Children’s Hospital are especially important for the children.

“This is where it leaves the realm of something you’re told to do by your manager and something that you want to do because of humanity,” Jim Digan, President of Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation, says later. “And that’s what means a lot to me seeing (Earnhardt) here … He was helping lead the tour in a couple of different areas. He knew the doctor in the neonatal intensive care unit. And he walks in and sees Maddie and knows her by name. … You talk about the genuine nature of who he is and that comes through.

“I think it makes our jobs more fun too because, why are we here? We’re here to kind of love and be loved and here’s a guy who loves on these kids and he loves doing it. It really promotes that cycle of life that’s important for everybody – you want to give hope. I think genuinely, I think a guy like this coming to a hospital with the most critical kids, it lends hope to a lot of these kids.”

– – –

Earnhardt’s impact is felt particularly on the final stop of the tour, as a lively group of children and their families greet the group in the Dale and Amy Earnhardt Activity Room. Named for the couple last season, the activity room is a place where the children can play, celebrate and ring the bell, modeled after Hendrick Motorsports’ Victory Bell, when they graduate from the rehab unit.

Earnhardt makes a point to chat with each of the children, take photos and sign anything they ask. One child makes an “8” with two hands and Earnhardt puts up another for an “88” in a photo. Another puts bunny ears on Earnhardt when they snap a picture.

A patient and Dale Earnhardt Jr. work together to signal “88.” Jessica Ruffin |

“We had these shirts made,” one family member says, referring to the gray “Giving Up is Not an Option” T-shirts they all wear.

The ages and conditions range in the room that afternoon and in the facility, as the hospital has 1.4 million patients visit annually from all 50 states and 52 countries.

But the spirit is contagious throughout that day everywhere; the children laugh and play, clearly happy to have the Hendrick Motorsports driver in their space. Some of them know about NASCAR, some don’t; it really doesn’t matter because it’s simply fun having him there.

And he’s great with them, too.

Later in the kids-led press conference, one child asks Earnhardt if he’s going to send Kyle Busch in the wall this weekend.

“Is that what everybody wants here?” Earnhardt says with a grin over giggles. “Poor Kyle.”

“If that happens, we want it on the last lap,” interior specialist Adam Jordan chimes in.

“Yup, last lap coming to the checkered,” Earnhardt says.

Another one asks how fast he can go.

“Well, that’s up to Greg,” Earnhardt says coyly to a chorus of laughs.

Their energy, smiles and questions almost make one forget the battles many of these children face every day.

Earnhardt knows what some of them go through, to an extent – his concussion last season brought about intense rehabilitation that affected his and his now-wife Amy’s daily life.

“The activity room we just went to, a lot of those kids are up there dealing with traumatic brain injury,” Earnhardt says after the tour. “You know that their lives are forever changed and that the rehabilitation for that goes beyond the time that they spend here in the hospital. So, there’s certainly a connection there and a deep sympathy of what they’re having to deal with and how their families are affected, their brothers and sisters, moms, dads – it really changes everything for everybody. …

“(The hospital) certainly makes you think about how fortunate you are and how delicate life is. It makes you just appreciate there’s a place for people to come, a place like this for people to get that kind of care. … When you’re standing there listening to a family thanking the doctor for what they did to save their kid’s life and he’s like, ‘Oh, thank you guys for allowing us to care for your child.’ That is really impactful, puts things into perspective.”

– – –

The group of five patient champions – some of whom also will be at Saturday’s Quaker State 400 — gather for a photo toward the end of the visit with the entire No. 88 team.

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Five-year-old Aliee Gilliland stands in front of Earnhardt in pink cowboy boots, a blue No. 88 T-shirt extending past her knees. Junior’s buddy Maddie rocks her hot pink gloves with a grin in the center. Tristen Cooper, John Roger Curry and Melanie Wheeler smile for the camera.

Dale Jr. takes photos with patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Jessica Ruffin |

“Say, ‘Fuzzy pickles,’ ” the photographer quips before snapping a shot.

“Fuzzy pickles!” Earnhardt says alone, as the children laugh.

Junior smiles. He’s happy here – and his visits will continue even after he hangs up his fire suit this season.

“We will continue to go,” Earnhardt said. “We will be connected to that place forever. Can’t wait to go back. Can’t wait to take a whole plane load of people with me that have never seen it before so they can see what is going on.”