Editor's Note: The Knoxville News Sentinel, which originally reported this story, posted an update on Dec. 14 that after further investigation, the newspaper was not able to verify Schmitt-Matzen's story, and no longer stands by the veracity of his account. The newspaper said that although his background checked out, they could not establish that his account was true, and no other sources have verified his account. Schmitt-Matzen has refused to disclose the identities of the alleged child's family, or the nurse.
There’s nothing Eric Schmitt-Matzen loves more than playing Santa Claus. The 60-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., Army veteran and grandfather has a real beard and mustache (which he bleaches to keep it super white). In fact, he celebrates a birthday on December 6—Saint Nicholas Day—and he’s a professionally trained Santa who wears Santa suspenders every day and has a “Jingle Bells” ringtone on his phone. His wife Sharon plays a convincing Mrs. Claus, too.
He loves to spread joy and good cheer. And although he’s used to playing around 80 Santa gigs each year, he wasn’t expecting a call he recently received for a special visit request.
He’d just gotten home from work when his phone rang. A friend (who is also a nurse) called from the local hospital where she worked to tell him that a terminally ill 5-year-old patient was requesting one last visit from Santa. He didn’t even have time to put on his red suit because she said there wasn’t enough time; the little boy wasn’t doing well. So he rushed to the hospital with his Santa suspenders on.
When he arrived at the hospital, only 15 minutes later, he met the little boy’s mom and a few other family members in intensive care. The boy’s mom handed Santa a PAW Patrol toy to give him.
Schmitt-Matzen told family members if they felt like they were going to cry, that it would be best for them to leave the room so he wouldn’t break down too. As he entered the boy’s ICU room by himself, the little boy looked like he was going to fall asleep, he told USA Today. He gave the boy the gift, but he was weak and could barely tear off the wrapping paper.
What happened next had this Santa questioning whether he could ever continue visiting sick kids in the hospital.
“They say I’m gonna die,” the little boy said to him, as he recounted to USA Today. “How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?”
Schmitt-Matzen told the boy, “When you get there, you tell ‘em you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf, and I know they’ll let you in.”
The boy sat up and hugged Schmitt-Matzen and asked, “Santa, can you help me?”
Before he could reply, as he wrapped his arms around the boy to return the hug, the boy died in Santa’s arms.
“I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him,” Schmitt-Matzen said.
The boy’s mother realized what had happened and ran into the room, and he handed the boy over to her and left. He said he was bawling as he passed the nurses' station.
“I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it,” he said. “I cried all the way home. I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”
Schmitt-Matzen said he was a “basket case” for three days and the boy’s passing affected him deeply. It took a few weeks to stop thinking about what happened all the time. He wasn’t sure he could return to the job, but he found it in him to do one more show. The kids laughing and enjoying spending time with Santa got to him, though.
“It make me realize the role I have to play,” he said, “for them and for me.”