Tennessee Santa grants final wish to child who died in his arms

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, plays Santa about 80 times a year in Tennessee.

He and his wife, who accompanies him as Mrs. Claus, have been in the business for years. But a recent experience left Schmitt-Matzen suffering from an identity crisis of sorts, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Several weeks ago, Schmitt-Matzen received a phone call from a nurse at a local hospital who said a 5-year-old terminally ill child wanted to see Santa Claus for the last time.

Schmitt-Matzen happily agreed. When he got to the intensive care unit, the boy was lying down in his bed, frail and sick.

“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 No. 1 elf!”

The boy, who could barely open the PAW Patrol toy that was given to him, hugged the man and asked him several quick questions.

“They say I’m going to die. How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?” the boy asked.

Schmitt-Matzen then told the boy that when he got there to say he was Santa’s No. 1 elf and he’d be let in.

Near the end of the visit, the boy asked one last 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.”

Schmitt-Matzen said he ran past the family and the nurses’ station crying — questioning whether he was cut out to be Santa.

“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen said. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive. 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.”

Several weeks later, he did one more show and when he heard the children laughing, it “made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”

A few days after the story was published, the News Sentinel added an update saying it is no longer standing by the veracity of the account.

“Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.

“Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”