A Father Christmas actor has told of how he thought he might never be able to play the role again when a terminally-ill young boy died in his arms, just moments after asking, "Santa, can you help me?"
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, of Tennessee, got a call from a nurse at his local hospital who told him he had to go "right now" to visit a boy who wanted to meet Santa - without even enough time to change into his full outfit after coming home from work.
The five-year-old was so weak he struggled to unwrap the present his mother had asked Mr Schmitt-Matzen to deliver, WHAS11 reported.
Mr Schmitt-Matzen sat down on his bed and said: "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!"
He told WHAS11: "'They say I'm gonna die,' he told me. 'How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?'
I said, 'Can you do me a big favor? When you get there, you tell 'em you're Santa's Number One elf, and I know they'll let you in.'"
The mechanical engineer added: "He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: 'Santa, can you help me?'
"I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
"Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, 'No, no, not yet!' I handed her son back and left as fast as I could."
Mr Schmitt-Matzen, a veteran of the US Army's elite Ranger unit, said he "ran by the nurses' station bawling my head off" and thought: "I'm just not cut out for this."
He said he could not bring himself to visit his grandchildren the following day and was "a basket case for three days".
It took him more than a week to stop thinking about it and get back to work, he added.
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