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Santa on wheels! Children's hospital creates holiday magic despite pandemic

"It was a way better reaction than he has even when he sees normal Santa."
/ Source: TODAY

Samuel “Sam” Spencer loves collecting football and baseball cards. The 16-year-old hoped Santa would bring him some — but, as a patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, would he even be able to visit with Santa this year?

Then one day a robot with a screen perched atop it came rolling into his hospital room. The faces on the screen were welcome visitors: Santa, Mrs. Claus, an elf and reindeer.

“I felt surprised to see Santa come in last week. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be a whole good deal,’” Sam told TODAY Parents. “I was one happy camper.”

Sam Spencer couldn't visit Santa during a pandemic because it was too risky to his health. He and his parents, Amber and James Spencer, were thrilled when St. Louis Children's Hospital found a safe way for Santa to visit. Courtesy St. Louis Children's Hospital

Sam has autism, hydrocephalus and epilepsy. Even if he wasn’t in the hospital, it would be too risky for him to be in public to visit Santa during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s spent a lot of time in the children’s hospital over the years and become used to receiving all sorts of visitors, ranging from local celebrities to superheroes, but the pandemic changed all that. His parents, Amber and James Spencer, said they also felt thrilled by the robot visit from Santa.

“He was extremely excited. And you can tell, especially in his face,” Amber told TODAY Parents. “It was really magical for Sam to see Santa virtually like that. And it was a way better reaction than he has even when he sees normal Santa — just because he could not believe that this little robot was rolling in the hospital!”

Santa, Mrs. Claus, an elf and a reindeer used technology to visit children in their rooms at St. Louis Children's Hospital. The kids loved chatting with Santa and sharing their wishlists with him. Courtesy St. Louis Children's Hospital

Kayla Winking, a child life specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, helped plan the special holiday event, called the Love Light Festival. She said she and others at the hospital wanted to make sure the children still had fun despite the pandemic.

“We've been trying to do everything we can to still give them the same experiences that we normally do while they're here. But there's definitely a lot more isolation,” Winking told TODAY Parents. “It’s definitely taking a toll on their spirit.”

The staff at St. Louis Children's Hospital felt it was important to provide their patients with fun experiences, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so many things about their hospital stays. Courtesy St. Louis Children's Hospital.

The hospital recently received the robot as a donation and wondered whether it could be used for holiday fun. A Cardinals baseball player used it to make virtual visits over the summer and everyone loved it. The virtual guests can drive the robot into the rooms so it gives them a real sense of being included. Santa and Mrs. Claus went all out to show the children the magic of Christmas.

“They had a whole setup behind them too, so it made it look like they were at the North Pole,” Winking said. “Santa would say the patient’s name and they would ask them what they want for Christmas or the holidays.”

Visiting with Santa, Mrs. Claus, a reindeer and elf brightened the moods of many children in St. Louis Children's Hospital. Courtesy St. Louis Children's Hospital

For the Spencers, moments like this make having their son in the hospital a little easier.

“That room was a really isolated world. Then Santa rolled in,” James said. “It was really awesome."

Amber agreed.

“It was so cool that it wheeled in. And Sam is a kid that loves electronics,” she said. “It was right up his alley and that is why he got so excited.”

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