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Karlee Graham is not having her best Christmas ever. The 14-year-old from Altamonte Springs, Florida, is currently in inpatient care nearby at Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando, where she came to recover from a brain surgery that left her paralyzed on the left side of her body.
With three siblings at home, Karlee's mom, Jennifer Nielsen, told TODAY Parents it's been hard for Karlee to be stuck at the hospital through the holiday season — and she still has weeks to go. But this morning, as they came around the corner of the hallway in the hospital, they encountered something unexpected: Santa and his elves were literally hanging outside the window.
"It was quite fun," said Nielsen. "The kids were all laughing and high-fiving Santa and the elves through the window."
For Christmas, Nemours asked window-washers from A1 Orange Cleaning Service Co. to "drop in" on the children and families staying at the hospital. With more than 100,000 square feet of exterior windows and floor-to-ceiling glass in each patient room, washers dressed as Santa and his elves had plenty of opportunities to interact with the hospital's patients.
"Karlee is pretty shy, but her face lit up when she saw them," said Nielsen. Though Karlee is too old to still believe in Santa or elves like the younger patients, her mom said the visit really affected her. "She really liked that so many people care enough to take the time to do this and try to make things better for her," she said. "She felt cared for."
Playing a window-washing Santa for the second year in a row is a "humbling, amazing experience" for Isaac Machado, who has raised five children himself, ranging in age from 24 to 7.
"It's a feeling like no other," he told TODAY Parents. "One young girl with no hands came up to the windows, smiling and showing us love. To see her still interacting, still loving — whatever is putting you down, your spirits can't help but come right back up. These kids have a no-quit attitude; you can't even tell they are bothered by their wheelchairs."
Nemours Children's Hospital child life specialist Christina Anderson said events like this one are important because they help normalize the experience of being in the hospital for children. "If they weren't in the hospital, these children would be decorating, buying gifts, and baking cookies," she told TODAY Parents.
"They're missing those opportunities, so even though at home they would not have elves hanging outside their windows, this gives them a more normal Christmas activity that reminds them that they are more than their illnesses.
"They get to play and just be kids," she said.
Anderson said that after a child life event such as the window-washing elves, children's moods tend to brighten even though they are in the hospital, dealing with medical procedures. "They become more cooperative when taking oral medications or having a medical exam, and their joy comes back, they smile more," she said. "Holidays in general are very difficult times to be in the hospital, so anything we can do to help change their moods really helps."
Machado said there is one big challenge in washing windows while wearing a Santa suit: the beard. "It's a little awkward," he chuckled. "It tends to get caught in the equipment, and one thing you do not want is to have your beard come off while the kids are watching you from the window!"
Their efforts are worth it, said Nielsen. "This is a big deal," she said. "Everyone here has made this really hard thing as easy as it possibly could be for my family and my daughter. It is comforting to know how many people are so kind and so invested in my daughter."