Editor's note: The Knoxville News Sentinel updated an original story Wednesday after being unable to confirm details of Schmitt-Matzen's account. The news outlet reported that facts of his background were described accurately, but his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel has not been able to verify whether Schmitt-Matzen's account is wholly accurate.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen usually has an uplifting job of hearing kids' hopes and wishes for Christmas morning.
Schmitt-Matzen portrays Santa every year.
But this year, he had one of the toughest visits.
An acquaintance of his who is a nurse at a local hospital called him about a sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
The nurse told Schmitt-Matzen that there wasn't enough time left for the boy for Santa to get fully suited up, that his always-present Santa suspenders were good enough and to get there as fast as he could.
Schmitt-Matzen got to the hospital in 15 minutes and met the boy's mother.
She gave him a toy to give to her son and he entered the Intensive Care Unit alone.
"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,'" Schmitt-Matzen told The News Sentinel.
He sat on the boy's bed and told him, "Say, what's this I hear you're gonna miss Christmas? There's no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you're my Number One elf!"
Schmitt-Matzen said the boy was so weak that he could barely open his present, but when he did, he smiled and laid back down, The News Sentinel reported.
The boy, showing braveness beyond his five years, knew he didn't have much time left.
Schmitt-Matzen said the boy asked, "'They say I'm gonna die. How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?'"
Schmitt-Matzen said to tell them the boy was his number one elf and they'll let him in, The News Sentinel reported.
The boy gave him one last hug and asked for Schmitt-Matzen to help him. The boy passed away in Santa's arms.
His mother, who was watching from outside the room, rushed in. Schmitt-Matzen handed her boy over to her before leaving the hospital, crying, ready to put away Santa forever.
He told The News Sentinel he cried the entire drive home, so hard that he had difficulties seeing well enough to drive. It hit him hard for three days. Even two weeks after the child died, he couldn't stop thinking about it.
But Schmitt-Matzen said he had to do one more show after the heartbreaking moment, The News Sentinel reported.
"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."
Schmitt-Matzen did not identify the boy, his family, the nurse who called him or the hospital where the incident occurred. He said he withheld those details in an effort to protect the identities of the boy and his family members.
Read more at The Knoxville News Sentinel.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.