Eric Schmitt-Matzen of Knoxville, Tennessee is the epitome of what you imagine when you think of Santa Claus. At 6-feet 310 pounds, Eric sports an award-winning beard and even shares his birthday with old Saint Nick.
So it’s no surprise that this Santa Claus actor stays busy, working about 80 gigs a year helping spread joy during the holiday season. But a few weeks ago, Eric was called in for an appearance that was far from the norm.
“I’d just gotten home from work that day,” he recalled. “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.”
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Eric was told that there was no time for him to don his full custom-made Santa outfit, and instead to just put on his red suspenders and hurry down to the hospital. 15 minutes later he arrived and was greeted by the young boy’s family.
“She bought a toy from (the TV show) PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him. 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.’”
Eric went in alone as the family watched on, tears already filling their eyes. This is what happened next in his own words.
“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.
“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.’”
In despair, Schmitt-Matzen was ready to hang up his suit. “I’m just not cut out for this,” he reasoned.
“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”
He added, “My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself. I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
Eric eventually did muster up the courage to work one more show, and the laughter of the children that day inspired him to continue his work.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”