Santa Claus elicited a smile from 6-month-old Elias Wilson, who came to Billings Clinic on Tuesday with his mom, Catelyn Wilson, for his well-baby check-up.
Santa stopped by the hospital to visit children in the outpatient and inpatient pediatric departments, as well as patients at the psychiatric center.
As Wilson held her son, the jolly bearded Christmas elf in red and white bent down and smiled at the baby, whose face lit up. Wilson smiled, as well.
Santa next gently cradled Tucker James Watkins, an infant in the waiting room.
“He’s 2 months today,” said his mother, Brenda Watkins, of Billings.
After that, Santa stopped by two pediatric treatment rooms to visit two boys, both at the clinic for outpatient chemotherapy. When he stepped into 3-year-old Christopher Keehn’s room, he paused for a moment to greet Christopher’s mom, Alyssa Keehn, of Billings.
“Hi, how are you?” he asked, and gave her a hug.
Then Santa addressed Christopher, who was sitting in a chair.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” the little boy responded, with bright interest.
“How old are you?” Santa asked.
“Three,” Christopher replied.
“Do you know what you want for Christmas?” Santa asked.
“My Little Pony,” the boy said.
Then he stood on the chair and reached his arms up to give Santa a hug. Both posed for a photo taken by Keehn.
“Hi Mom,” Christopher said, and waved.
“Hi Mom,” Santa repeated, waving, too.
Then Christopher sat comfortably in Santa’s lap, not letting the boy’s IV get in the way, and the two continued their conversation.
When they were done, Santa made a private visit to the second boy who felt ill but wanted to see Santa.
Sarah Blackburn, a pediatric oncology social worker who helped facilitate the visits, said Santa Claus brings his own kind of medicine.
“The little guy in here who hasn’t been feeling well saw Santa and just perked right up,” Blackburn said. “It’s a good distraction for them. And of course they love seeing Santa and being able to tell him what they want for Christmas.”
Both boys would spend several hours on Tuesday at Billings Clinic, Blackburn said.
“And to break that up a little bit is such a nice relief for them,” she said. “And with Santa, that’s primo.”
His visit is also a gift to the parents, Blackburn said, to see their children perk up in the midst of a tough time.
“For the parents to see their kids smiling, too, especially when they're not feeling well, is very special," Blackburn said.
It’s also a treat for the staff, she said, to see the young patients' visages brighten. Staff members grow close to the patients and their families who come in weekly for treatment.
"We see the kids when they're feeling their worst," Blackburn said. "And for us to be able to see them smiling is really wonderful for us."
For his part, Santa Claus, who declined to give another name, said he stays busy this time of year visiting with kids. That includes his time meeting and greeting youngsters at Rimrock Mall.
Drones are big items this season, he said, as are Patchimals. And Santa enjoys hearing the kids share their thoughts about Christmas and what they’d like to see under the tree.
But getting a chance to visit children grappling with illness means a lot to him.
“It’s a great thrill to come in and say ‘hi’ to them and see their eyes light up when they see me,” Santa said. “(So is) being able to give them a glimmer of hope, something to look forward to, and to see that their dreams are not gone, that they have something to dream about.”