Skip to content

Anybody need a little holiday cheer?

One of the many prescriptions Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine offer every year for spreading holiday cheer is a tradition at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.

For a decade and a half, the hospital has been on the leading edge of online, Santa Claus-kid solutions.

Just check out what happened to Santa client Aaron Burnish. On Dec. 8, the 11-year-old was in the midst of his physical and occupational therapy (really a game that involves throwing hula hoops across his room from his hospital bed) when three elves walked in. One who wore a headband with Christmas-sticker antennae held up a computer tablet. Burnish did a double-take.

On the screen was the big guy with the beard. The head cheese of the North Pole. Santa himself.

“Hi Aaron!” the jolly old elf on the screen said in a voice that rumbled like a bee hive. Santa knew his name! Burnish has been on the planet for a little more than a decade, and already he’s on a first-name basis with Kris “I’m the guy with the list” Kringle himself.

And then, just to prove it was no hoax, the computer-screen Santa asked, “How’s Bumble?”

Well, even Aaron’s mother, who was seated in a nearby chair, gasped at that. Bumble, a stuffed monster with sharp teeth and big eyes, is Aaron’s favorite possession. Your average mall Santa would never know Bumble. This had to be the genuine article.

Aaron was speechless, but got a few minutes of screen time with the big guy, and one of the nurses even gave him an early Christmas gift – a blanket, direct from the North Pole. Then, Santa wished him a happy holiday, and the team dashed away.

Using the latest in technological magic, the Children’s Hospital was able to bring Santa direct to dozens of kids in rooms like Aaron’s that day, delivering blankets and helping the man in the red suit make sure his list was just right ― even in the age of COVID-19.

To be honest, how they pulled it off is a really lame story ― one no kid would enjoy. They probably should stop reading right now. Only moms and dads could get any enjoyment out of what comes next.

We’ll wait. OK, parents ― is the coast clear?

A man dressed as Santa Claus sits at a desk in front of a laptop. Behind him is a screen designed to look like a mantle with a holiday tree.

Santa Tim works out of a room somewhere on campus.

The Children’s Hospital has hosted online video conferencing with Santa Claus for the past 15 years. Even when safety concerns around the pandemic canceled nearly every event from the fun maestros in the Child Life program, the virtual Santa visits continued.

“When COVID hit, it seemed like we were training for this particular situation all along,” said John Cosgrove, an enterprise network architect who has been involved with the virtual visits with Santa from the very beginning.

A Penn State Health team stations Santa ― this year volunteer Santa Tim from Lancaster – in a room on Hershey’s campus they’ve decked out to look like a toymaker’s workshop.

This year, Child Life Services assistants Pam Baranowski, Olivia Smaltz, Tiffaney Horner and intern Kelley Gavel spent the morning of Dec. 8 wheeling a cart to five different units in the Children’s Hospital to visit dozens of children.

Just outside each room, they whispered to Santa Tim a few facts about the child he’d meet. They got the clues from a survey they circulated a few days earlier to parents who agreed to participate. That’s how Santa Tim knew all about Aaron’s favorite toy, Bumble. Then, the team entered each room, held up the computer tablet and let the magic happen. Before leaving, they dropped off a red and green blanket contributed by Tom Fritsch, a senior account executive from ePlus who works with Penn State Health.

Here are just a few other ways Penn State Health and College of Medicine employees have helped conjure up visions of sugar plums in their workplaces and communities this year:

Santa from the heart

A man dressed as Santa Claus holds a sleeping infant on his chest.

John Gable wears his costume at a gig.

Christmas is a big deal for John Gable.

Since 2005, the administrative assistant at Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute has been dressing up as Santa. His mom helped him make his first suit, and he started landing gigs. He visited nursing homes and shelters, a tree farm and eventually landed an annual job at the Lebanon Valley Mall.

That’s when Santa-ing became serious. Gable started bleaching his hair and grew his own beard.

Now, Gable is Santa throughout Lebanon County, posing for photos and helping to collect gifts for needy families, supplies for shelters and money for a $1,000 scholarship to study music awards every year to kids from Lebanon High School (his own kids were part of the music program there).

“I’ve always loved Christmas, so this was just a natural thing to do,” he said.

A little construction paper goes a long way

A bulletin board in an office features a construction paper tree covered in snowflake cut outs.

The staff at the Lancaster Operations Center call center answer questions on snowflakes they’re posting in their office.

Call it autumn in reverse.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, employees in the Lancaster Operations Center call center arrived at work and found fall-colored paper leaves on their desks.

Every morning, a Teams message asked a holiday-related question. Everyone wrote their answers on each leaf. Each day, they answered a new query. How do you cook your turkey? When do you decorate your Christmas tree? Do you call it stuffing or dressing?

Scheduler Michele Dochat, whose idea this was, did the asking. Once her colleagues had written their answers on the leaves she’d left for them, they affixed them to a construction paper tree displayed on an office wall. Slowly, the bare branches filled with oranges and yellows and reds.

“It was really fun to read,” said Shirl Sullivan, operational manager of the call center. “She’s so creative.”

Employees at the call center field phone calls for Penn State Health Medical Group – South Lancaster, Penn State Health Lime Spring Outpatient Center Penn State Health Medical Group Orthopedics, Penn State Health Medical Group Downtown ― Specialty Services and Penn State Health Medical Group – Prospect. It’s vital work – especially during a pandemic, when the person on the other end of the call is dealing with so much. For the call center, it can drain energy and emotion, especially during the holidays.

For the past three years, call center employees share their holiday spirit by supporting Transitional Living Center, a homeless shelter in Lancaster. This year, everyone chipped in to buy coats. Little niceties like Dochat’s tree are how they share that same spirit with one another.

Dochat and staff are working on a new one. This time they’re filling a poster-board sky with snowflakes inscribed with answers to questions like “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?”

A little warmth on the West Shore

A man has a flannel blanket draped over his shoulders as he sits in a hospital bed. The man wears a gown.

Mark Sweigart, patient at Hampden Medical Center, poses with his donated blanket.

This year, who couldn’t use some extra comfort?

That goes double for COVID-19 patients, so Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center and Penn State Health Hampden Medical Center launched the Comfort for COVID campaign.

Both hospitals have been collecting donations from the staff and community of new, fleece blankets for their inpatients with COVID-19.

So far the effort has netted about 125 blankets. Patients get to keep the gift when they’re discharged.

Wait … where are the lords a-leaping?

Christmas Day is Dec. 25, right? So, what’s up with the “12 Days of Christmas” song, with all the geese laying, ladies dancing and that certain bird in that certain fruit tree?

Christian tradition has it that the Magi, or the three wise men, took 12 days to travel to meet the baby Jesus for the first time, so the holiday actually runs until Jan. 6.

Twelve days is also the perfect amount of time for Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center to celebrate with their staff. Since Dec. 13, the Medical Center kicked off “12 Days of Holiday Cheer.” Each day features a different holiday themed event for staff, from a hot cocoa bar to a day where everyone wears their tackiest sweaters.

A “special visitor” ― someone wearing red and white ― is due on Tuesday, Dec. 21. Twelve guesses who that is.

A choir of students

MedNotes, Penn State College of Medicine’s a capella choir, has been seen caroling around Hershey. Last week, the group offered up Christmas music at the entrance to the Hershey Medical Center and at a local nursing home.

If you're having trouble accessing this content, or would like it in another format, please email the Penn State College of Medicine web department.