KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - A wish came true for a terminally ill five-year-old who wanted to see Santa for Christmas - then the youngster died in Saint Nick's arms.
A few weeks ago, a nurse phoned Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, with what seemed like an ordinary request. The president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro, Tennessee in the United States has been bringing smiles to the faces of ailing children at a local hospital as Santa Claus during the holiday season for years.
"She said there was a very sick five-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus," he told the Knoxville News Sentinel, part of the USA Today network.
"I told her, 'OK, just let me change into my outfit.' She said, 'There isn't time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.' "
Indeed, at 1.8m tall and weighing 141kg, it does not take much for Schmitt-Matzen to look the part of Jolly Old Saint Nick in a hurry. He arrived at the hospital in 15 minutes and the nurse gave him a toy she'd bought for the little boy - he, his family and the hospital were not identified.Then he gave orders to everyone present, USA Today said.
He told the staff and family: "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." Then Santa entered the room alone.
Schmitt-Matzen said the boy looked weak as if about to fall asleep but perked up when he told him he was his "Number One elf".
"He looked up and said, 'I am?'. I said, 'Sure!'," he told the newspaper.
Schmitt-Matzen told USA Today that he watched him open the present and smile before he lay back down.
"They say I'm going to die,' he told me. 'How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?' I said, 'Can you do me a big favour?' He said 'Sure!' When you get there, you tell them you're Santa's No. 1 elf and I know they'll let you in.' He said, 'They will?' I said, 'Sure.'"
Schmitt-Matzen said the little boy gave him a big hug. "I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there," he said. "I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him."
The boy's distraught mother rushed in when she realised that her son was gone and screamed, and he handed him to her and left as quickly as he could.
Though Schmitt-Matzen had spent four years in the Army, where he had seen his share of tragic incidents but said "I ran by the nurses' station bawling my head off".
"I cried all the way home... I was a basket case for three days," he said, noting that 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."
But he did. After seeing the smiles of the other sick children at the hospital when they saw their Christmas hero in the halls, Schmitt-Matzen told the paper that he put his Santa suit back on "for them and for me".