There’s no chimney at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte for Santa to shimmy down, but with a little help from medical team members, he’ll find his way in.

He’s already visited Hemby once this month, and he’ll be there again Christmas Eve to say hello and distribute candy canes to the kids who have to be in the hospital on Christmas.

And there will be toys, too.

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“Our child life program accepts toy donations from community members all year long, and we see an increase of donations in October, November and December,” said Megan Arleth, one of two certified child life specialists at Hemby.

“Lauren Palmer, a previous oncology mama, leads one of the toy drives with Kristen Montgomery. They spread the word and share our Amazon wish list. This year, they collected 570 toys. They also recruited Santa – who invited children to come out of their rooms, sit on his lap and share their wish lists. Santa confirmed that everyone was nice and gave a blanket and stuffed animal to every child who was inpatient that day.”

Arleth and her colleague, Kristen Beaury, operate a holiday toy shop.

“On Christmas Eve, parents and caregivers of children in the hospital are invited to our toy shop, which is in our movie theater that’s been transformed into a winter wonderland,” Arleth said. “Families can go shopping and may be able to fill a Santa sack, depending on how many toys are donated. Some years, we can invite parents to shop for their sick child’s siblings, as well.” Night-shift nurses will go in individual rooms with Santa sacks while the child is sleeping to deliver presents.

Some Decembers, enough toy donations are received to run the Child Life program for nearly the entire year. All the toys the team offers – arts and crafts, slime and Play Dough, Legos – are intended for one-time patient use. Kids get to take those things home with them.

Hemby isn’t a typical hospital environment. “Especially at the holidays, it’s really welcoming, festive, happy,” said Arleth.

Megan Areleth and Kristen Beaury, certified child life specialists at Novant Health Hemby Children's hospital, are smiling in front of a Christmas tree.
Left to right: Megan Arleth and Kristen Beaury. (Masks removed for photo only.)

Three decorated Christmas trees are spread throughout the pediatric unit and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Some Novant Health corporate team members decorated the unit for Christmas with snowflake and snowmen window clings. Snow Babe Balloons donated a balloon arch to Hemby’s oncology unit, and Claire’s Army donated mini-Christmas trees, Christmas lights, wreaths, stockings, and garland to any oncology patient and family that has to sleep over at the hospital on Christmas Eve. “They really transform the inpatient rooms for children who have to be here on Christmas,” Arleth said.

Hemby staff traditionally hosts a Christmas Pajamas Day and a Polar Express Day in December. Even team members come to work clad in Christmas PJs. “We usually hand out golden tickets and open our movie theater, serve hot cocoa and cookies and invite any child who’s not on isolation precautions to come watch ‘The Polar Express,’” said Arleth.

Due to a bad flu (and RSV) season, the team wasn’t able to host the movie screening this year, but everyone did dress in holiday jammies. The staff also had fun with Tacky Christmas Sweater Day.

Just as Santa doesn’t skip Hemby, neither do elves on shelves. Night-shift nurses get really excited about moving elves to new locations each night, Arleth said.

If the team – and certainly the families of sick children – had their druthers, no one would be in the hospital over Christmas. But for those who have to be there, Hemby staff makes it festive.

“Our doctors and staff do everything possible to get these kids home for Christmas,” Arleth said. “In the days leading up to Dec. 25, if kids are healthy and in a good place, they can be discharged. But if they do have to be here, we do all we can to make it joyful.”

SEcondary santa

Hemby is a 40-bed hospital, and this flu season, it’s been full or close to it, every night. The length of stay for each patient varies from 24 hours to possibly months.

No matter the season, child life specialists work to decrease the stress and anxiety inherent in a hospitalization. They have expertise in helping children and their families overcome medically challenging events. Children who require medical procedures, from an X-ray to open-heart surgery, benefit from having trained professionals on their care team who know how to calm their fears.

And, they do that by engaging in play. “We make the environment as nonthreatening as possible,” said Arleth. “We may teach kids about their diagnosis by using a doll or teddy bear, and we tailor our interactions to each child. If they're having an IV placed or getting blood taken, we’ll try to distract them. But first, we prepare them by explaining what they’re going to experience through their five senses. We provide information so a child knows exactly what to expect from their visit. We can drastically increase a child’s coping just by removing the unknown.”

“We want to make the hospital a friendly place and not a scary place,” she continued. “Parents benefit just as much from these interactions as the child does. We really treat the whole family – siblings included.”

Even for families dealing with a child in the hospital, it’s still – thanks to Arleth and team – the most wonderful time of the year.

On Dec. 16, a group of Charlotte teens representing @teamleadthecure wrapped 120 board games for children to enjoy playing with their families while receiving care at the hospital and back home. Co-led by Eleanor Ohmstede and Sophia D’Amico, Team Lead the Cure works year-round to raise funds and awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

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Community and team member donors helped make this program possible through Novant Health foundations. Click here to connect with your local foundation team to learn more, or make a gift to help save and improve more lives today. Click here to support our Hemby patients.