For a kid, there's probably no worse place to be on Christmas than the hospital. As if being sick isn't bad enough, you're away from home, home-cooked meals, and worse, you're away from Santa. How will he find you if you're not home?
That's part of the bearded guy's magic. His brain is half GPS.
Kids at St. John's Hospital in Springfield have learned that for decades. Going back to at least the 1960s, Santa has visited children in the pediatric ward there in December whenever possible.
But even Santa's magic can't prevent a bad cold or flu season. At those times, Santa and other outsiders may be prohibited from visiting the young patients so they don't infect them, says St. John's pediatrics assistant nurse manager Kim Pitchford.
There have been years when the hospital couldn't find a Santa, and there was the time Santa couldn't visit because he showed up with a bit too much bubbly on his breath, but that's another story.
Often, things work out and Santa arrives for a special visit, usually a week or two before Christmas. Vanessa Tinkous, a child life clinical specialist at the hospital, helps select the Santa who will visit the pediatric floor.
"We look for someone who's experienced with kids, who is known to us and who looks like Santa," she says. "We try to have only one Santa visit a year so the kids don't get confused."
This year's Santa is otherwise known as Al Eck of Springfield, a 74-year-old St. Nick veteran. For 10 years, he has appeared at the Santa House on the downtown square the day after the Christmas parade.
"It all got started when I was playing Santa for my grandchildren," Eck says. "That was probably about 20 years ago, and it hasn't ended. I have 22 grandchildren; the 22nd was born a couple months ago."
Since his grandchildren live throughout Illinois, Eck's "sleigh" has a lot of miles on it. "I drive (to the grandchild's home), suit up, make my visit, go back out to the car and drive back home again," he says.
Eck's cover was nearly blown once. "One grandson was about 2 years old, and he decided it was me. He said, 'You're Papa!' and I changed the subject."
One key to being Santa is making the kids feel at ease. "Some are very outgoing and ready to jump in your lap," Eck says. "Some are very bashful and intimidated, and I just take the time to make them comfortable and get them to talk."
He uses a special trick for bashful boys. "When they're tongue-tied and can't think of anything they want, I say, 'That's OK, I'll bring you some underwear!' and they unfreeze real fast," Eck says, chuckling.
His upcoming visit to St. John's pediatric ward will be the first time he's portrayed Santa for sick children.
Children at St. John's have a variety of illnesses, from cancer to seizure disorders to severe respiratory infections. Tinkous says staff members talk to Santa about the patients in advance. "Some kids are hooked up to IV (intravenous) poles, and some can only look through the windows at him because they're in isolation."
"I don't think I'll do anything different for the sick kids," Eck says. "A kid is a kid." As always, he'll smile and make them comfortable and bring his trademark small candy canes "to make sure each kid gets something."
He needn't worry. "Santa's helpers," otherwise known as the pediatric staff, make sure of that. "On Christmas Eve, the nurses pick out gifts for their patients, wrap them and put them in the patients' rooms so when the kids wake up in the morning they have gifts," Tinkous says. The gifts are donated by the community.
"Last year, each child got four to six gifts," Pitchford says. "The staff get really excited about playing Santa's helper and trying to get the kids to bed early on Christmas Eve."
"The nurses love watching patients as they wake up and discover their gifts," Tinkous adds.
Families usually bring gifts and holiday decorations. Some children even have Christmas trees and stockings in their hospital rooms.
It's all about making the kids feel more at home, Tinkous says. "We want to normalize the hospital environment for them, so we bring Christmas and Santa here."
Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )