Leslie Blum got choked up when Santa Claus entered her daughter’s hospital room.
She didn’t think the 6-year-old would get to see the jolly old elf this year.
But Santa, clad in his traditional red suit and a firefighter’s helmet, made the rounds Thursday at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. He was accompanied by members of the Omaha fire union.
The crew delivered toys, wooden firetrucks and gift cards to patients at the Omaha hospital.
Blum’s daughter, Ryleigh Heesch, has been in the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. They aren’t sure when she will be released.
But Ryleigh was in good spirits for the surprise Santa visit. She reclined in her hospital bed with her new toy, still boxed, perched on her lap.
After dropping off presents with the firefighters, Santa made a return trip to her room on the sixth floor.
“Hey, Santa. I’m going to give you a hug and a kiss,” Ryleigh said.
After giving him a squeeze around the neck and a peck on the cheek, she rattled off her Christmas list: glittery shoes and some earrings.
The firefighters union has been organizing the toy drive for about 10 years, said Omaha Firefighter Ryan Loewenstein. For the past several years, Loewenstein has been spearheading the effort in honor of his late son, Easton.
Easton spent time in and out of Children’s while battling an intestinal condition. He died at 18 months old.
Loewenstein knows how it feels to spend the holidays in the hospital. It isn’t fun.
“We get to see joy on the kids’ faces,” he said. “We’re all firefighters, and our community is very important to us. This is a way to give back.”
About 50 members of the union, including Santa and Buddy the Elf, helped with the toy drop-off.
The visits are a way to add some normalcy to a hospital stay, said Terry Patterson, director of family resources at the hospital.
“They’re not forgotten,” Patterson said. “Santa knows the address to Children’s, and the people in the community care.”
On one stop, Emry Huse set aside her gift-wrapped present for a wooden firetruck Santa rolled her way. The 5-year-old hoisted it into her mom’s arms before tearing into the other present.
The trucks were made by Omahan Don Klitz. He has been crafting the trucks — about 10 each year — for the last six years of the union’s toy donation tradition.
“It’s the best day of the year for me,” Klitz said.
Eli Shepard was one of the more bashful patients. He hid behind his present while Santa and firefighters visited. But the 4-year-old wasted no time ripping off the wrapping paper when Santa gave the go-ahead.
Meanwhile, Emma Gehring had only one question for Santa: “Can I open it?” Mom Kathryn helped her open the gift, and Emma quickly offered up a thank-you and “Merry Christmas.”
Emma has been hospitalized for 20 days, said her dad, Brent Gehring. She has been battling a brain tumor and suffered complications recently.
“To see the joy and laughter,” Brent Gehring said, “it’s the best gift we could get.”
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