Most folks attending the Indy 500 will arrive by car, bus or even shuttle service.
But not MaKenzi Rooksberry, 11, of Jasonville, Ind., and Johliel Austin, 14, of Indianapolis.
These Riley kids will join Andrew Luck, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, in the IU Health LifeLine helicopter, take in the city from thousands of feet and land on Turn One at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The star QB and his two Riley friends will then buckle up in an official Indy 500 pace car, take a lap around the track and deliver the green flag that signals the start of the race. This will mark the first time that Luck and both kids have attended “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
MaKenzi was selected by Riley at IU Health for this once-in-a-lifetime experience for her strength and courage—traits she shares with all pediatric patients. She will board the very same medical transport helicopter that raced her to Riley at IU Health on a wintry day in 2013, after her sled collided with a moving vehicle.
Johliel, an 8th grader at KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory School, will participate as a representative of Change the Play, the popular health and wellness program Luck developed with Riley at IU Health experts and that rolled out in schools this year.
ABOUT MAKENZI ROOKSBERRY
What began as a gleeful down-hill sled ride quickly turned dire when MaKenzi Rooksberry’s saucer sled hit an ice patch, launching the then 10-year-old into a moving car. “I heard a thud,” recalled her mother, Toni, who watched in horror as her daughter, tucked in a pink snowsuit, bounced off the vehicle like a rag doll. As her family rushed to her side, MaKenzi was unconscious. Her eyes had rolled back into her head. Her body jerked about. One of her snow boots had come off.
Once stabilized by paramedics, MaKenzi was rushed to a local hospital in Terre Haute, Ind., where scans revealed she had a broken collarbone and a punctured lung, which was filling up with fluid and blood.
The decision was made to airlift her to Riley at IU Health, home to the state’s only level 1 pediatric trauma center. The trauma team, led by Dr. Thomas Rouse, worked to do everything possible to save MaKenzi’s ailing lung. Chest tubes were inserted to keep the vital organ inflated and to drain the fluid that was pooling. If her lung didn’t respond, potentially part or all of it would need to be removed.
“Her injury was unusual and significant enough that it required three weeks in the hospital,” said Dr. Rouse. Which meant MaKenzi, would miss her school dance—and she was in the running for “Snow Queen.” Sensing her disappointment, her nurses organized a “Snow Queen” celebration in her hospital room. Too sick to have her nails painted that day, MaKenzi cracked a smile when nurses crowned her with a tiara and wrapped a feather boa around her neck. This would later stand out as a bright spot amid an otherwise gloomy experience.
More than a year has passed since the accident. Today, MaKenzi is a vibrant 11-year-old who loves school and playing soft ball. She is looking forward to her first Indy 500, not only to meet Andrew Luck and see the race, but to take another ride in the IU Health Lifeline helicopter that helped save her life. “A year ago we didn’t know if she was going to make it,” said Toni. “MaKenzi is a very big success story.”
ABOUT JOHLIEL AUSTIN
An Indianapolis native, Johliel Austin, 14, is a health-minded eight grader at KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory School. KIPP Indy is one of nearly 30 Indiana schools that participated in the first-ever Change the Play school program. Change the Play is an eight-week health, fitness and nutrition program Andrew Luck developed in partnership with Riley at IU Health that teaches kids how to take charge of their own health. “Having someone like Andrew Luck gives me an example of a successful outcome,” said Johliel. “I’ve learned a lot about staying fit and that eating healthy can set you up for a better life.” For his part, Johliel strives to stay active at least six days a week—basketball is a favorite sport—and is conscious of what he puts on his plate, careful to limit salt and fat, for example.
He also strives to be the family’s quarterback of health—a key skill taught by Change the Play—by encouraging his mom to do Zumba and his dad to take walks with him in the park.
“Change the Play taught our students the spectrum of what it means to be a healthy person—from physical activity and nutrition tips to stress management techniques,” said Aleesia Johnson, KIPP Indy School Leader. “It gave them a variety of tools to use when they are working to have a healthy life. And the fact that the program is led by Andrew Luck is cool for our kids. To see a person they can relate to—who is well-known in our city—giving that message helps them be excited and motivated.” Sharing this experience with that role model Sunday will be one of the most memorable moments of Johliel’s life, she added.
In five years, Johliel said he hopes to be a student at the University of Kentucky and aspires to be an accountant someday. While he has never flown in an airplane, he is eagerly awaiting Sunday’s helicopter ride.