MINNEAPOLIS – Ethan Monroe encountered two major surprises on Tuesday.
Ethan went in to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital with his family for what originally was scheduled to be a fairly non-invasive cardiac procedure. When complications arose, the best course of action became open-heart surgery.
The 16-year-old's biggest concern wasn't anxiety over the operation, however. Rather, it was disappointment that he would likely miss out on Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph's visit to the hospital for his December Holiday Huddle.
But when Kyle heard that Ethan wanted to meet him – a mere two hours after getting out of major surgery – he made sure to pay a special visit to the high school football player who, coincidentally, also plays tight end.
Despite being in severe pain and unable to speak, Ethan's eyes lit up when Kyle, his wife Jordan and Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks entered the room.
Kyle and Eric signed autographs for Ethan and took photos with him and his family. After a few minutes, Ethan reached up slowly to shake Kyle's hand and held it for a brief moment, then shook Eric's.
"I think they helped his pain go down a little bit," said Lindsey Monroe, Ethan's mother.
Ethan was born with Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) with absent pulmonary valve and at 6 months old had his first open-heart surgery to patch the hole, re-size the aorta and put in a homograft valve. Three years later, he had a second open-heart surgery to replace the valve. At 6 years old, he underwent a third open-heart surgery.
In December 2015, Ethan had another procedure, that one being intravenous. What should have been a repeat of that approach became his fourth-open heart surgery Tuesday afternoon.
"I wouldn't want to see anyone two hours after surgery, I don't care who you are," Kyle said. "A couple hours after heart surgery … and he wants to hang out with us, it just shows you how tough these kids are here at the hospital. They're certainly much tougher than we are."
Kyle Rudolph, Eric Kendricks were among the Vikings players to visit children and patients at the annual Christmas Holiday Huddle.
Watching her son endure such a difficult and unexpected situation one week after his birthday and shortly before Christmas, Lindsey acknowledged the emotional roller coaster of a day.
"Knowing that Ethan idolizes Kyle Rudolph, and the fact that he's here today of all days, on his open-heart surgery day, it's really unbelievable. There really are no words," Lindsey said, her voice cracking. "It really made things a little bit better on such a grim day."
In addition to Ethan's visit, Kyle, Jordan and Eric spent time in the rooms of three other patients who were unable to make it downstairs for the Holiday Huddle party. They gave the patients a pillow and blanket donated by Sleep Number.
Kendricks didn't know what to expect on his first visit to the hospital but was positively impacted by each of the young people he met.
"It's just [incredible]," Kendricks said. "These kids are so strong. I'm just blown away, honestly."
The linebacker naturally and casually chatted with patients of all ages, but he shared a special connection with Nathan, a long-term patient who has gotten to know the Rudolphs well.
"I'm going to tell you something I don't tell many people," Kendricks told Nathan with a smile. "My first name is actually Eric-Nathan, so we share part of a first name."
Nathan returned the grin.
"I wanted to support Kyle, but most importantly I wanted to support these kids," Kendricks said of his decision to join in the Huddle. "I didn't know what to really expect, but just being here and helping to put a smile on their face, that's enough for us."
Following the room visits, Kyle and Eric joined nine teammates in the lobby to mingle with other patients and their families. George Iloka, Eric Wilson, Aldrick Robinson, Chad Beebe, Matt Wile, Aviante Collins, Kyle Sloter, Storm Norton and Cole Hikutini signed autographs, posed for photos and spent time getting to know the many young people. Viktor the Viking and Vikings Legends Stu Voigt, Dave Osborn and Ryan Hoag also joined in the festivities.
And don't forget Santa and Mrs. Claus, who made an exclusive appearance.
"Just bringing joy to these kids is really important," Wilson said. "Especially if they have to be stuck in the hospital over the holidays. It's a time for them to get away from that, have fun and just enjoy the moment."
Kyle and Jordan reconnected with some families they had also seen the previous evening, when they hosted their annual "Rudy's Redeye Express to the North Pole."
On Monday night, 47 children – which included patients and siblings – were treated to a special experience where they received "plane tickets," boarded a charter jet on the runway and "flew" to the North Pole.
Kyle said the event is one of his favorites every year.
"To see the kids' faces as they walked through the tinsel into the North Pole where Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, the elves, reindeer were, all the sugar you could want – cookies and candy and hot chocolate – it's pretty magical for a couple hours," said Rudolph before quipping, "The hardest part is telling them that they have to go back to Minnesota."
Kyle and Jordan have 2-year-old daughters, Andersyn and Finley, and a son on the way.
"Having kids of our own, these visits provide us with perspective," Kyle said. "You come down here on a Tuesday, and you're immediately grounded and reminded of what other people are facing, and our daily challenges seem so small.
"It's extremely rewarding to be able to bring Christmas to these patients and their families," Kyle added.
WPMOY Charity Challenge
Kyle is the 2018 Vikings Community Man of the Year and nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year will be presented on Feb. 2, 2019, during "NFL Honors" in Atlanta on the eve of Super Bowl LIII. All team nominees are also in the running for the **_WPMOY Charity Challenge_**. Fans are encouraged to post #WPMOYChallenge and Rudolph on social media between now and Jan. 13. The nominee with the most mentions will receive $25,000 for the charity of his choice.