“I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.”
A longtime Tennessee Santa Claus says he is having a hard time continuing to play the part after a terminally ill child died in his arms after asking to see Santa one last time.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, is a professionally trained Santa Claus who does about 80 gigs a year annually. His wife sometimes comes with him as Mrs. Claus.
He told the story of his heartbreaking experience to columnist Sam Venable of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Schmitt-Matzen’s devotion to the part is so deep, according to the newspaper, that he regularly wears Santa suspenders in his daily life and has “Jingle Bells” as his ringtone.
Recently, Schmitt-Matzen got a call from a nurse he knew at a local hospital, he told the columnist. She told him a sick 5-year-old boy had asked to see Santa Claus, and asked if Schmitt-Matzen could come to the hospital immediately.
“I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now,’” he told the columnist.
Schmitt-Matzen got to the hospital in 15 minutes, and met the boy’s family. The child’s mother gave him a toy to give to the child, and Schmitt-Matzen gave it to the boy.
The boy then told Schmitt-Matzen he was going to die, and so Schmitt-Matzen attempted to comfort him as Santa.
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in,” he told the child, according to the News-Sentinel column.
The boy then leaned in for a hug, and passed away in Schmitt-Matzen’s arms. He told the columnist what happened next:
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.
Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.
Schmitt-Matzen told the columnist the experience has made him want to retire as Santa, but he has decided to do one more show.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play,” he said. “For them and for me.”