Earlier versions of this column misidentified Leo Mullen, a volunteer who dresses as Santa Claus to visit patients at Children's National Medical Center on Christmas. This version has been corrected.
At Children's Hospital, Santas and toyshops make the season brighter for the young patients
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 8:59 PM
Santa Claus will visit Children's Hospital on Saturday, bringing hearty ho-ho-hos. He will go to every room and leave presents for every patient. He will bend his ruddy, bearded face down to the youngsters and listen to their juvenile longings.
I wondered if any child ever says, "Santa, for Christmas, will you make me better?"
"I have never heard that," said Terry Spearman, director of the Child Life program at Children's. "I've never heard a kid say, 'Can you make me better?' I think the ones that really believe in Santa, they want toys. They have their mind set on something special. . . . They're being kids. It's always, 'What do you have, Santa? Did you bring my toys, Santa?' "
There is never a good time to be in the hospital, but finding yourself stuck in one during a holiday seems especially unfair.
"It's not just Christmas," Terry said. "It's Hanukkah or any other season that families celebrate." And so people try to bring a little bit of the holiday into the hospital. At Thanksgiving, a family brought in a complete turkey dinner to eat together in their child's room.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the hospital is transformed. Playrooms on each floor are turned into winter wonderlands. Plastic trees sprout in many patient rooms. Best of all, there's Dr. Bear's Holiday Toy Shop.
It opened Monday and fills three rooms on the fourth floor, a wonderland packed to near-bursting with donated stuffed animals, books, games, basketballs, Legos, dolls, trucks. . . . Parents are invited to come and select free for their kids - not just the sick kids but also siblings whose mom or dad might have been too preoccupied to shop for.
"They don't know that coming in," Terry said. "They just think they're coming to get something for the patient who's in the hospital. They find they don't have to worry about the family's needs. It's been taken care of. It's very emotional. A lot of parents are so overwhelmed and grateful."
Volunteers gift wrap the toys and help carry them back to the child's room. And on Christmas, the Jolly Old Elf himself comes.
Jolly Old Elves, actually. Doctors do their best to let kids go home for Christmas if they're well enough, but even so, more than two-thirds of the hospital's 303 beds will be occupied Saturday. That's far too many for a single Santa to service, so there are two: Milton Shinberg, whose wife, Judy, is a Child Life specialist at the hospital, and Leo Mullen, whose wife, Helene, serves on the hospital's board of visitors.
They have been donning red suits for years - and taking care never to ride the elevator at the same time or be spotted in the same hallway.
Said Terry: "On Christmas morning, sometimes a nurse will say to Santa, 'You need to see this patient first. She isn't doing well.'" Last year, a boy hopped out of his bed and ran down the hall, his hospital gown flapping, when he heard St. Nick's approach. Such is the power of the Claus.
Photos will be snapped, toys and candy canes handed out.
The usually bustling hospital is a much quieter place on Christmas. The clinics are closed. The outpatients are gone. Some kids worry that Santa won't be able to find them, stuck as they are so far from home, wrapped in a sterile cocoon, a nurse call button not far away.
There's no Santa call button. But he comes anyway.
Better to give than receive?
Can you spread some holiday cheer our way? There are 21/2 weeks left in our campaign for Children's Hospital, and I'm delighted to say our momentum is building. We mustn't slack off, though. Send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online with a credit card, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital, or call 301-565-8501 to donate by phone.