Health & Medicine

UC Davis Children’s Hospital patients chat virtually with Santa

Lucas Schager, 5, talks to Santa via Web connection in the UC Davis Children’s Hospital playroom Tuesday. The program allows some children who cannot leave their rooms to call in to Santa via iPad.
Lucas Schager, 5, talks to Santa via Web connection in the UC Davis Children’s Hospital playroom Tuesday. The program allows some children who cannot leave their rooms to call in to Santa via iPad. scaiola@sacbee.com

Santa had a long line of fans in the UC Davis Children’s Hospital playroom Tuesday, but fortunately for him, they weren’t leaping into his lap.

The big-bellied Christmas figure was up in the “North Pole,” in this case a conference room, greeting kids all over the hospital through a large, high-definition screen. Seated in an office chair and costumed from beard to boot, Santa spoke with each child in the playroom about his or her Christmas wishes and favorite jingles. A backdrop depicting a cozy fireplace on a snowy day helped preserve the magic for patients, most of whom believed that Santa could not come to Sacramento because he was busy preparing for Christmas.

The reality is that Santa has limited mobility in the hospital, where some isolation units require full protective gear and spreading germs is a constant concern. Rather than leave the sickest patients out, hospital staff chose to keep the Christmas celebrity at a distance, maintaining a sense of mystery while allowing all patients to experience the magic in a safe way.

“There are precautions we have to take with gowning, gloving and wearing a mask – which is very difficult for Santa to do in his big red suit, especially because Santa goes room to room,” said Diana Sundberg, child life and creative arts therapy manager. “So it’s just safer that way to be able to bring him in via the iPad.”

Santa held virtual visits with about 70 patients on Tuesday, Sundberg said, including patients in the surgery unit, the pediatric intensive care unit and the pediatric infusion room. Patients who were able to walk to the playroom stood in line before talking to Santa individually on the screen, while those who could not leave their rooms spoke to Santa through iPads.

Jerry Tamburino, the Tahoe Park resident who has played virtual Santa for both years the hospital has had the program, said he gets the same spark and joy connecting with children on the Web as he does playing Santa in person around Sacramento.

“For me, the electronics, I don’t really feel a separation with the child,” he said. “Because they’re giving me all that love through the camera. It’s still the same. Santa is still Santa and the child is still the child … it is what it is and it’s a terrific experience.”

The program is made possible through a partnership with technology provider Cisco, which runs the Cisco Santa Connection at about 40 hospitals across the U.S. and Mexico. Cisco began the program eight years ago to make more use of technology that many hospitals were already working with.

Kim Schager said her son, Lucas, has been talking about Christmas constantly, even while moving from hospital to hospital. Wearing a neck brace Tuesday to help with temporary paralysis caused by a virus, the 5-year-old looked up at the screen during a one-on-one conversation with Santa, smiling as he joined in for a jolly “ho, ho, ho.”

Lucas has been at the Davis facility for a week, said Schager, and was very excited to get to speak with Santa personally. The virtual connection was a surprise to the whole family.

“His biggest concern was getting to see Santa,” she said. “He’s a big Christmas kid, so it’s been pretty special for him … It was just so cool. They told me Santa was coming, but I never imagined that.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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