Eric Schmitt-Matzen received a call after work that changed his life.
It was a nurse from a hospital near where Schmitt-Matzen lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. "She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus," Schmitt-Matzen told the News-Sentinel.
The white-bearded, curled-mustached, 310-pound Schmitt-Matzen only had to don his Santa suit to be ready to play the part. "When I got [to the hospital], it was my job to make sure he got Christmas," Schmitt-Matzen told WBIR.
In an interview with the News-Sentinel, Schmitt-Matzen tells the story in his own words:
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.
‘“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
“Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”
According to KSL, Schmitt-Matzen cried the whole way home. But though it was hard for Schmitt-Matzen to give that last gift to that sweet little boy, he's begun thinking of his role as Santa Claus in a completely new way.
"It made me realize the role I have to play," the part-time Santa told NBC, "for them and for me."