Health & Fitness

Paging Santa: South Florida hospitals get into the Christmas spirit

Nicklaus Children's Hospital patient Salette Ruiz, 4, of Hialeah, uses a new toy syringe to give Santa a shot in his beard as he visits her bedside on Thursday December 17, 2015.
Nicklaus Children's Hospital patient Salette Ruiz, 4, of Hialeah, uses a new toy syringe to give Santa a shot in his beard as he visits her bedside on Thursday December 17, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

A hospital isn’t usually high on the list of places to spend Christmas. But for 8-year-old Nicole Chavez, it’s a joyful home for the holiday.

Oh my gosh! There were a lot of presents,” Nicole, a third-grader at Ojus Elementary School in Northeast Miami-Dade, said from her hospital bed at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. A visit from Santa and a gift exchange turned her room into a winter wonderland.

And it’s not a scary place either for 6-year-old Michael Palazzo of Coral Springs, who braved open-heart surgery and now feels empowered like Iron Man as he recovers. On Tuesday, he returned to Nicklaus with his parents to donate some of the gifts he received. One of them, a giant teddy bear sprawled on a chair in a waiting room, seemed taller than his father.

“Our mission is to bring a sense of normalcy in what is an abnormal environment,” said Kara Marante, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital’s director of children’s experiences. “You may be hospitalized but you’re still a kid.”

This time of year, children’s hospitals including Nicklaus near South Miami, Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial in Miami, and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood strive to transform their patients’ rooms for Christmas.

It’s the time for toys for all the children, visits from Santa, holiday parties. For families who don’t celebrate the holiday, the hospitals offer plenty of other activities.

“The youth center offers massages and free haircuts to parents, and there are art therapy and drum therapy sessions for parents because they, too, are stressed and need to get it out,” Marante said. “If parents are in a better place, they can meet the needs of their children.”

It brought Christmas into our lives when we thought we were not going to have much of it at all.

Tom Palazzo, father of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital patient, Michael, 6.

Nicole loves Christmas and bounds up in bed to show off one of her favorite presents delivered right to her hospital room — a hula hoop.

“I love doing hula hoop,” she says. Nicole would show you, too, but at the moment she’s hooked to an IV to help kill an infection that has had her hospitalized through the holiday.

A few days before Christmas, the hospital hosted the Live Like Bella Holiday Party with Santa, which featured a visit from St. Nick, gift exchanges and face-painting.

“In our country it’s very different, the nurses are rude,” mom Stephany Suarez said of their old home in Bolivia.

“In my other country they don’t tell you, ‘How do you feel?’ or ‘What do you want?’ They just bring you things and say, ‘Here!’” Nicole said, thrusting her hand forward.

This is Nicole’s first Christmas in the hospital and her mother was initially worried that the two- to three-week stay over the holiday would add to the trauma.

“I was scared,” Suarez said. “But during the day she has parties and a lot of things to do. It’s different than I imagined. She doesn’t want to go home! She says it’s nice to stay in the hospital.”

Here are more stories of children spending Christmas in the hospital:

Nicklaus Children’s Hospital

Tom and Michelle Palazzo had a tough decision to make.

The Coral Springs couple’s son, Michael, born with a congenital heart defect — the great vessels of his heart were connected backward — had emergency corrective surgery within days of his birth. But, at 6, he was growing faster than the sutures could keep pace. A scheduled open-heart operation with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Gil Wernovsky would fix the problem. But the timing was lousy.

To get Michael in and out of the hospital in time to return to school after the new year meant spending some of the Christmas season at Nicklaus — perhaps even Christmas morning itself.

“How are we going to give him everything he has wished for and wanted? As parents, this was definitely a concern during Christmas,” Michelle said.

Michael’s parents did the usual parent thing — they made sure the elf on the shelf gravitated around their son’s room, along with other surprises. “We did our best,” Mom said.

The hospital did the rest: a Hasbro Day of Joy, featuring costumed Hasbro characters like the Transformers, My Little Pony and Mr. Potato Head. A performance of The Nutcracker. A tree-lighting ceremony. The Live Like Bella Holiday Party. Publix’s holiday party, with Plato the dinosaur and more gift exchanges.

“On Christmas, and any of the holidays, the staff really goes out of their way to make every child feel special,” said Jackie Gonzalez, senior vice president and chief nursing officer.

In addition, about 10,000 toys pass through Nicklaus’ doors each year through donations. This means for the children in the 289 beds at the main hospital and others at eight outpatient centers across South Florida, a toy will be found under every bed this Christmas morning as the children awake.

Max Taylor, 7, loves his Legos. The side of his bed and the windowsill of his room prove the building brick toy is evergreen. “I just start to build things without any instructions,” he said.

He brought a list for Santa, too, since he knew he would be here during the holidays for his chemo sessions to treat neuroblastoma. He rattles off his list while curled in his bed: “A toy car. Houses or a train. Also Legos. Also a boat. Also a plane.”

“It’s very special,” said Max’s mom, Shasa Hu. “Before we came Max said, ‘I’m excited to go to the hospital.’ Imagine if kids don’t want to come here, it would be a huge battle.”

Wernovsky, medical director of the patient and family care program, says the Christmas spirit even sweeps over the medical staff.

“We’re big kids anyway,” he said, smiling.

“Santa coming around on the day he was discharged and the whole Christmas party going on was a great experience,” said Tom Palazzo, Michael’s dad. “It brought Christmas into our lives when we thought we were not going to have much of it at all.”

Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital

Christmas morning for Hannah Verkey often revolves around family and food.

“Mom usually starts working on Christmas breakfast the night before and has it ready by the morning,” said Verkey, 17.

After breakfast — a holiday ham, homemade biscuits and gravy — comes the trip to Grandma’s house to do it all over again.

This year, however, will be different.

Hannah was recently hospitalized at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood. Hannah's mom, Lisa, said she hopes her daughter will be out by Christmas but “we still don't know what’s wrong.”

While a hospital isn’t where any child expects to spend the holidays, it’s still Christmas as usual at Joe DiMaggio, said Michael Caschette, the emergency room and Child Life Program director.

Since 1990, Child Life coordinators, who perform other duties at the hospital, work around the year to help children get through their treatment. Caschette said things always get interesting during the holidays.

“It's one of the biggest parties that you can have,” Caschette said. “It's like Grand Central Station in here sometimes.”

Since November, Child Life has received over 300 donations from community members and organizations. On Monday, the Hollywood Police Department and former Marlins player Jeff Conine went door-to-door, handing out toys to Hannah and the other children at the hospital.

Caschette said Santa Claus has visited the hospital 14 times, along with singers and the hospital’s full-time clown, Lotsy Dotsy.

Joe DiMaggio also received 75 iPads this holiday season through donations.

“Time and time again, the community always surprises us with how generous they can be,” said Franny Garrett, a Child Life specialists and donations coordinator.

The hospital was decorated and when I woke up there were presents everywhere. It was like something from a movie.

Jennifer Spell, 16, a patient at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital.

Last year during holiday season, Jennifer Spell, 16, was taken to Joe DiMaggio doctors who determined that Jennifer was suffering from the H3N1 flu virus, which had attacked her heart and caused cardiac failure. She was in the hospital for 241 days and remembers spending Christmas morning there.

“The hospital was decorated and when I woke up there were presents everywhere,” Jennifer said as she received dialysis. “It was like something from a movie.”

Today, Jennifer is recovering and comes to the hospital from West Palm Beach to receive dialysis three days a week because of permanent kidney failure. She also suffered nerve damage in her left hand and she was in a wheelchair for some time.

Looking back at the year, Jennifer's dad, Scott, said the people at the hospital, and the Child Life Program, made all the difference.

“One might think that it’s not necessary in a hospital, but for long-term stays it’s absolutely the thing that made the difference,” Scott said.

Holtz Children’s Hospital

Rodquella Atkinson has a morning ritual.

It begins with a shower, which she follows by brushing her teeth. She flat-irons her waist-length hair, which she makes sure to pin back before applying makeup and swiping on lip gloss.

Mornings at Holtz Children’s Hospital, to which Atkinson, 18, was admitted one month ago, are different.

Nurses, who pace in and out of her room every 30 minutes like clockwork, wake her before sunrise for “labs,” filling three, sometimes more, vials with blood for testing. The hospital’s menu of eggs, sausage and bagels isn’t Atkinson’s favorite, so she’s hooked up to an IV most of the time. Throughout the day, she takes five to seven different types of medicines.

This is Atkinson’s most recent complication after her liver transplant.

Atkinson, a senior at Sun Ed High School in Oakland Park, was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis in 2007 when she was 10. It was a long time ago, she says, so it’s all a blur. She remembers her mom saying that doctors gave her three months to live.

But before the clock could run out, the phone rang.

Holtz had a liver for her. It was a successful transplant — for the most part.

“She wasn’t compliant at first and wouldn’t take her meds,” said Dr. Jennifer Garcia, a medical director at Holtz.

But Atkinson, the only girl among four brothers, got her act together, Garcia said. She realized it was important to listen to doctors’ orders, embarking on 50-mile round trips from her home in Fort Lauderdale to the hospital for blood tests and check-ups.

But excessive bleeding brought her in a month ago, and doctors determined that her platelet count was running low.

She’s been hooked up to machines and monitored by a team of nurses and doctors ever since. It’s where she will be on Christmas Day.

Holtz Children’s Hospital hosts more than a dozen holiday-themed events through December.

A Christmas tree the size of a vending machine sits just outside Atkinson’s room. Wreaths and garlands adorn the walls of Holtz. On Wednesday, Child Life staff hosted its annual Snow Pile, an event where parents of patients have the opportunity to choose from a mass of toys donated to the hospital to present to their children. It’s only one of a dozen holiday events occurring through the month.

But it’s not home, where Atkinson would rather be, playing with her brother.

If her illness has taught anything, though, it’s strength.

“There’s people in the world going through way worse stuff than you,” she said. “So just gotta be happy.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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