MINNEAPOLIS – Ali Gaffney, a Hennepin Health paramedic, could not believe it.
Gaffney was at Hennepin Healthcare Clinic and Specialty Center last week as part of the hospital's Crucial Catch event and presentation of the 2023 CHANGE Grant Recipient.
Like the other 50-plus people in attendance, Gaffney sat with community members, doctors, nurses and breast cancer survivors to listen to Dr. Abigail Madans, a breast cancer surgeon at the clinic, share the importance of early screening. Madans' message resonated with so many in the room, especially Gaffney, who is currently battling Stage 4 breast cancer.
Dressed in a purple Alexander Mattison jersey, Madans thanked the Vikings and the American Cancer Society for what would happen next.
"This year, Hennepin Health Care received $20,000 to work on increasing our breast cancer screening rates," Madans said. "We've been able to develop several community outreach and education programs as a result of this funding. But hopefully, next year, we'll just become a part of what we do. So we need this funding, right? Educating people and reaching into the community about early cancer detection can prevent cancer from becoming a fatal disease. It means someone may not need chemotherapy and suffer through those side effects. It means they may be alive in 10 years and cancer-free."
Gaffney and the room erupted with applause when Mattison presented the American Cancer Society and Vikings fund grant initiative as part of the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign.
But little did Gaffney know, Mattison and the Vikings had a surprise for her.
"There is someone that we want to make sure we bring up and acknowledge. Ali, if you'd like to join me up here," Mattison said. "For all that you do, we want to make sure we acknowledge you and surprise you with two tickets to [an upcoming game]."
Fans may recognize Gaffney, or at least the custom pink-striped ambulance she drives for Hennepin Clinic. It was parked outside U.S. Bank Stadium before the Vikings Oct. 8 home game against the Chiefs.
Now, thanks to the American Cancer Society and the Vikings, Gaffney will be at U.S. Bank as a fan for an upcoming home game.
"I was completely floored," Gaffney said. "A few people have some really great photos of my shocked face. I had no idea any of this is happening. It's absolutely incredible and such a huge blessing."
It was a whirlwind morning for Gaffney that started with a subtle invite. She was asked if she wanted to attend a "Vikings event" at the hospital. She accepted, knowing the hospital wanted to park her pink ambulance outside for decoration.
An hour later, she took photos with Mattison, mingled with Viktor and held her newly autographed football high and tight.
"[Mattison] has a connection with cancer. Just like I think almost everybody that exists does, and his story matters just as much as my story. So that was really nice to listen and hear about his dad," Gaffney said. "I think that's the thing that everybody forgets, is that he puts his pants on the same way I do every day."
Mattison has dedicated part of his career to raising cancer awareness. His father was diagnosed with Leukemia when Mattison was a freshman in high school. His father's successful battle with cancer helped shape his passion for helping other families in similar situations.
For Mattison, getting to connect with individuals like Gaffney is why he's an ambassador for the American Cancer Society and the Crucial Catch initiative.
"It's bigger than me. And the game is bigger than me and always will be, so I treat it as such," Mattison said. "It's a blessing for me to be in this position. It's a blessing for me to have this platform and the resources that I have. So it would be a shame if I didn't use them to help out and continue to do as much as I can in the community."
Gaffney has a new favorite player. When it's time for her to cheer on the Vikings at U.S. Bank, she said she already knows what to wear to the game.
"I'll definitely be rocking Alex's jersey," she said. "It was really cool to share this moment and to hear his story. He wanted to hear mine, too. It's special to share that. And we took some selfies. It was definitely a day to remember."