BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Mall Santa Clauses can make a kid’s day, or their whole holiday season. In the case of one Tennessee Santa, he made a dying child’s Christmas wish come true.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen is 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, naturally looking the part of Santa. He’s also a former Army Ranger.
But the 60-year-old was left in shambles after visiting a sick child in the hospital, he tells the Knoxville Sun Sentinel.
“I cried all the way home,” he said. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”
Schmitt-Matzen, who is a mechanical engineer by day, had just gotten home from work.
“The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus. 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 did as the nurse said, getting to the hospital in 15 minutes.
“She’d bought a toy from (the TV show) PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him,” said Schmitt-Matzen. “I sized up the situation and 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.’ ”
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. 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!
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.
‘“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“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.”
He couldn’t contain his emotions.
“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.’”
It was so heart-wrenching for Schmitt-Matzen, he considering retiring from his Santa duties.
“I’m just not cut out for this,” said Schmitt-Matzen.
But he isn’t out of the game yet.
While fulfilling another gig after visiting with the boy, “When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold,” he said. “It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”