Eric Schmitt-Matzen might as well be the real Santa Claus. The 60-year-old has been professionally trained, always wears suspenders, and has “Jingle Bells” as his cell phone ring tone year-round. He takes special care to bleach his beard white all year long and even won an award for best “natural full beard, styled mustache” at a beard contest. At 6-foot tall and 310 pounds he leaves “just enough of a lap for the kids to sit on.” Needless to say, this guy is the real deal.

Schmitt-Matzen is a mechanical engineer and is the owner of “Packing Seals & Engineering, LLC.” When the engineering Santa got home from work one night in early December 2016, he got a call from a nurse who worked at a nearby hospital. A 5-year-old boy wasn’t doing at all well and, as his last wish, he desperately hoped to see Santa Claus. The nurse told Schmitt-Matzen not to bother with getting into Santa’s velvety garb and that his everyday white beard and suspenders would be good enough — there was simply not enough time left for any delays.

The man who would make a dying boy feel like he was “number one.”

Within minutes, Schmitt-Matzen was at the hospital, talking with the little boy’s family. He asked the family to step outside the room if they felt they would get emotional so that he wouldn’t break down in tears while surrounded by a sobbing family. While Schmitt-Matzen had undergone special Santa training, he’d never been asked to do anything quite like this before. The consummate professional slapped on a jolly smile, knowing that his role to play in this situation was that of the Jolly Old Elf—the one man who could make a dying boy feel like he was “Number 1.”

As Schmitt-Matzen was giving the little boy a present the mother had purchased before the encounter, he asked the sick youngster, “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!” The boy looked up, enthusiastic about the compliment. “I am?” he asked.

Schmitt-Matzen helped him with the wrapping paper, and when the boy saw the gift inside a smile flashed upon his face just before laying his head back down to rest.

“They say I’m going to die,” the boy said. “How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?”

“When you get up there to the pearly gates, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s number one elf… I know they’ll let you in,” Schmitt-Matzen told him. These were, apparently, the words the young boy needed to hear to stop suffering. The boy asked, “Santa, can you help me?” and reached for a hug. As the two embraced, the life went out of the child’s body.

He is going to need time to heal from this, his most challenging performance.

“No, no! Not yet!” yelled the mother, but it was too late. Schmitt-Matzen handed the lifeless child to the mother and took off down the hall, crying as he left the hospital and the whole drive home. His training as an Army Ranger and later as a professional Santa did not come close to providing Schmitt-Matzen with the tools to emotionally handle this role.

Schmitt-Matzen has considered hanging up his velvety costume for good. He was unable to travel to see family to celebrate his own birthday later that week. The Santa performer did do one more event following this impromptu appearance, which helped him get back into jollier spirits, but he is going to need time to heal from this, his most challenging performance.

Sharing the Christmas spirit with those who have little to give is what the season is all about. The tears must be plentiful for Santa impersonator Eric Schmitt-Matzen, but so was his generosity. He already had the look, but now we know he has the spirit too.

Thank you to all the Santas out there who are making sick childrens’ holiday seasons a little brighter.