Yes, Long Island, there is a Santa Claus.
For three hours on a recent Friday, the auditorium at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow was transformed into a Christmas wonderland for dozens of children with chronic illnesses, and their delightful families. There was no crying in the hospital this night. For a few hours, the children could forget they were patients, and simply enjoy the fantasies of the holiday season.
Sponsored by the Department of Pediatrics and the medical center's Kiwanis Club, the party provided holiday music, dinner, cake, ice cream and cotton candy. And then, there was old St. Nick himself. Yes, he did look very much like the kind, gentle volunteer I was speaking with as the evening began, but I could have been mistaken. His red suit, white hair and beard were like magnets as the kids flocked to sit on his lap. His bell rang above the laughing and screaming children.
Santa Claus was also there in the eyes of the doctors, nurses, volunteers and administrators who served food donated by generous local eateries and bakeries. I saw him in the hearts of the community and student volunteers. He was in the smiles of the volunteer elves who painted faces, ran arts and crafts activities and made balloon animals. He was in the kindness shown by the security and custodial staff and in the warmth and concern of the food delivery people, jump-castle operators and the tireless deejay.
He must have had something to do with getting the presents for all the children generously donated by his helpers and distributed by St. Nick and his elves.
The children's laughter and smiles left little room that night for thoughts of illness, medicine, politics and health insurance reform. Weary grandparents and parents watched the children -- about 200 of them, including siblings -- tirelessly run and play. And usually frazzled medical students and resident doctors in their hospital garb stayed to enjoy the kids.
Some doctors, nurses and parents became emotional as they told and retold the stories of their patients' and children's accomplishments and challenges. There were children with autism, diabetes, asthma and sickle cell anemia. A young man now 18 came from out of state by bus and train to tell the story of how the hospital helped him overcome leukemia when he was 3.
The holiday season is about sharing and loving and helping. It's a reminder that we can give a little of ourselves and get back unexpected returns. It can be a magical time when we all try to understand each other a little bit better and share some feelings and experiences. That often translates into a little more kindness and concern for our fellow Long Islanders.
Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and he was at NUMC.