News

Terminally ill 5-year-old dies in Santa's arms

Posted December 13, 2016

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When Santa Claus got a call from the hospital with a request to visit a terminally ill boy, he didn’t realize he’d be the one holding the child when he passed.

With his long white beard, jolly red cheeks, round soft belly and signature suspenders Eric Schmitt-Matzen embodies the Saint Nick he becomes each December, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Schmitt-Matzen stays busy during the holiday season working about 80 gigs a year.

So when he received a call from a nurse at a Knoxville, Tennessee, hospital a few weeks ago as he was leaving his civilian job as a mechanical engineer, he jumped at the chance to change into his big red suit. But the 5-year-old child who wanted to see him didn’t have time for a costume change, the News Sentinel reported.

“(The nurse) said, ‘There isn’t time for that,’” Schmitt-Matzen said. “’Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’”

Schmitt-Matzen arrived at the hospital to find the devastated family in tears. The boy’s mother handed Santa a PAW Patrol toy to give her son, struggling to keep her composure. That’s when Schmitt-Matzen realized the gravity of the situation, according to the News Sentinel.

“(I) told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job,’” he said.

With that, he entered the room alone.

“He was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep,” Schmitt-Matzen told the News Sentinel. “I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!”

The boy lit up with the news, then struggled to open the gift in front of him. After flashing a smile, he looked up at Schmitt-Matzen and asked a heartbreaking question, the News Sentinel reported.

“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’” Schmitt-Matzen said.

Old Saint Nick told the boy all he needed to do was mention he was Santa’s No. 1 elf, and he’d surely be let in.

“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’” Schmitt-Matzen told the News Sentinel. “I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.”

When the family realized what had happened, they ran in to hold the boy. That’s when Schmitt-Matzen dashed out of the room, holding back sobs.

“I cried all the way home,” he told the News Sentinel. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”

The News Sentinel columnist who spoke to Schmitt-Matzen, Sam Venable, has been overwhelmed by the response the tragic — yet beautiful — story has received in the days since it was published in the paper Sunday.

“People have told me that they were crying when they read it, and I tell them that I was crying when I wrote it,” he told CNN.

Schmitt-Matzen found it difficult to remain jolly after the experience. He struggled to find hope in the season for a time — even skipping out on a visit to his grandchildren in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time,” he told the News Sentinel. “Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”

But then the messages of love began flooding his Facebook page.

“Such an amazing thing to have done,” one commenter wrote. “You are a saint among men.”

“Grant peace to your heart for the joy you brought him even for only a moment,” wrote another.

Eventually, Schmitt-Matzen found the strength to slip on the red suit once more.

“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold,” he told the News Sentinel. “It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”

The ultimate gift, indeed.

Jessica Ivins is a content manager for KSL.com and contributor to the Motherhood Matters section.

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