At Children’s National, telemedicine technology brings Santa Claus to town

At Children's National Medical Center, a “virtual” Santa makes the rounds, visiting children in various wards. Using the same Cisco technology for telemedicine, kids and parents can interact with Santa and celebrate Christmas away from home. (John Kelly and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist December 23, 2013

“Do you wanna see the North Pole?” whispered Craig Sable, a cardiologist at Children’s National.

Did I ever!

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

First, though, I wanted to see Santa Claus — well, virtual Santa Claus. The jolly old elf was appearing live on a flat-screen monitor resting atop a wheeled cart that was swathed in red-and-green wrapping paper. The contraption was being rolled from room to room at Children’s National by a cadre of helpers wearing jingle bells and antler hats.

A hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” boomed from the speakers as the cart was pushed through the hospital’s heart, lung and kidney unit. And because the rolling St. Nick was topped by a video camera, not only could the kids see Santa, Santa could also see the kids. He knew when they were sleeping; he knew when they were awake.

How about if they were bad or good?


Tim Poole sits with his daughter, Lily Poole, 3, who has had several heart operations at Children's National Hospital in Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“All these kids are good,” said Jimmy Alignay, a systems engineer with Cisco, the IT company that had arranged ­
e-Santa’s visit.

The Cisco technology is typically used for telemedicine: the ability for a patient at one hospital to be seen by a doctor at another hospital, thousands of miles away.

“I’ve done 25 cardiac consultations already this week,” including with patients in Guam and Morocco, Sable said.

The cardiac department alone does 1,500 telemedicine consultations a year, most commonly live ultrasounds of small children’s beating hearts. Doctors can chat with patients via video link, monitor readings on various devices and call up medical records, all with the sort of secure line that satisfies HIPAA privacy rules, which are even stricter than those governing Santa’s Naughty and Nice List.

One of the children digital Santa visited was 3-year-old Lily Poole of Owings, Md., whose father, Tim Poole, had wrestled her out of her pajamas and into a cute outfit. Lily was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition where part of her heart hadn’t fully developed. She was in the hospital for a cardiac catheterization.

The audio from the North Pole was a bit spotty — there was a broadband dead spot in a corner of Lily’s room — but when Santa waved at Lily and asked her to wave back, she happily complied.

“We try here at Children’s National to make these children feel special and give them as much of the holiday cheer as possible,” Sable said. “With the virtual or tele-Santa we can reach a lot more kids than if Santa personally had to go from room to room.”

After Santa and Lily said their goodbyes, Lily eagerly dove into the Doc McStuffins doctor’s bag play set one of his helpers gave her. (When you’ve spent as much time in the hospital as Lily has, you immediately know how to put on a blood pressure cuff, even one that’s tiny and pink and purple.)

“Here we are, back in the hallway,” Santa noted as his disembodied head was rolled to his next appointment.

It was time for me to see the North Pole, which was a large conference room near the cardiac unit on the third floor. Gifts donated by Toys for Tots were stacked along one wall: cars, telescopes, dolls, colorful blankets for babies . . .

And there was Santa, resplendent in plaid vest, white gloves and requisite hat. He was seated in front of a backdrop of a Christmas tree and decorated mantel. In front of him was a large flat-screen monitor and video camera. At his right hand was Mary Fuska, operations manager for the hospital’s telemedicine services, who was acting like the stage manager at a TV show, consulting a list of the kids they would be visiting.

“This venue is different from working a mall, which I also do one day a week,” said Santa, a.k.a. Dan Slipetsky. “These children are not on my lap. Sometimes they’re in the back of the room, and it’s hard for me to see. But they can see me. . . . It’s amazing how you can tell by a little response how excited the children are.”

It’s true that Santa had an effect on even the sickest kids. I watched the screen as he told stories about his reindeer, about snow at the North Pole, about his fondness for chocolate chip cookies. In response, children who couldn’t talk managed a wave; those who couldn’t move managed a smile.

For a moment, at least, their day was merry and bright.

To see a video of virtual Santa’s visit to Children’s National, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Helping Children’s

In this season of light, I hope you’ll shine some light on Children’s National. And by “light,” I mean “money.” Your tax-deductible gift will go to help pay the medical bills of underinsured children.

To donate, visit childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or send a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, Md. 20910. Our deadline is Jan. 10.

Your gift can make a difference in the life of a child.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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