On Christmas Eve at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, there’s always one particular person making the rounds who’s not wearing standard-issue blue scrubs.
He’s easy to spot in his bright red suit and flowing white beard. Oh, and don’t forget the bulging sack of toys slung over his shoulder.
Children who find themselves in the hospital at Christmas get a personal visit from Santa Claus.
For kids with illnesses that don’t allow extra visitors, Santa leaves gifts outside their door for them to open at a later time.
Instead of elves, nurses cheerfully help St. Nick deliver his toys.
Christmas Eve at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital is a festive affair. Nurses, team members and volunteers go to great lengths to bring holiday cheer to our patients.
For nurses like Melissa Catalanotto, the day is often filled with touching and unforgettable moments. She recalls one chronically ill special needs child whose parents had urged staff to discharge him in time to celebrate his first Christmas at home.
However, he required a piece of specialized breathing equipment to safely make the trip home. But it was Christmas Eve so finding such equipment proved difficult.
Catalanotto, her fellow nurses, social workers, hospitalists and anyone else she could corral started making calls to medical equipment providers to find the equipment he needed, but all with no luck. “It was heartbreaking,” she recalls.
Finally, about 6:30 p.m., someone came through with the equipment, and the patient got to go home for his first Christmas. “It was very important to his family,” she says.
Some children aren’t so lucky and wind up spending Christmas in the hospital. Catalonatto remembers a recently adopted infant with medical complications who couldn’t go home. Her new adoptive mother and grandmother made the most of the situation by decorating her room and having their own miniature celebration.
“They let me be part of that; it was so special,” Catalanotto says, fighting back tears. “She got her first baby doll, there was a little Christmas tree. It made my day.”
Christmas is also special for team members, says pediatric nurse Chelsea Allen. “Some of our medical residents brought cookies to thank us, which was so nice,” Allen says. “And the families of children who are here, especially if they’ve been here a while, are so thankful for what everyone does at Christmas.”
But for the kids, it’s all about Santa. He gathers donated gifts and distributes them to every child and sibling. He also makes up gift sacks for children who get admitted to the hospital after he leaves.
Pediatric Intensive Care Unit RN Jessica Handy remembers one child who was especially thrilled. “I was taking care of the sweetest 7-year-old little boy, who had been a complete joy to care for, and he was getting to be transferred out of the PICU when Santa came in,” Handy recalls. “When the little boy saw the huge bag of gifts he gasped and asked Santa, ‘I was on the nice list?!’ To which Santa responded, ‘Of course!’ He was so thrilled and it made our day.”
If Shawn Wolkart had her way, every patient bed would be empty so children could celebrate Christmas at home. “Health permitting, we try to get them out by Christmas Eve night,” says Wolkart, division director of nursing at the children’s hospital.
The community, staff and Santa always make Christmas cheerier for children who are in the hospital, Wolkart says.
“We get volunteers who come and sing songs, and they feed the staff; team members bring presents for the children and even their siblings,” Wolkart says. “Santa finds out the name of all the patients and their siblings and greets them personally.”