ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Altru staff brings holiday cheer to patients

"He just showed up," Melissa Swenson said of Elfie, the little felt elf making its way through the hospital. "He came to us after Thanksgiving and made a mess in the toy cupboard, and the next thing you know he was dressed with the doctor set rea...

Nora, an Altru Health Systems therapy dog dressed as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Nora, an Altru Health Systems therapy dog dressed as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, wears "Elfy" from the popular "Elf on the Shelf" book during a visit to children staying in the hospital during the Christmas season.JOHN STENNES/ GRAND FORKS HERALD

"He just showed up," Melissa Swenson said of Elfie, the little felt elf making its way through the hospital.

"He came to us after Thanksgiving and made a mess in the toy cupboard, and the next thing you know he was dressed with the doctor set ready to go," she added. His name is Elfie, and his job is to watch over the children in the hospital.

As the child life specialist at Altru Hospital, Swenson is trying to bring some holiday magic to the pediatric patients this season. With visits from Santa, appearances from Elfie and holiday gifts from the nurses, Swenson and other hospital staff members are giving their patients opportunities to participate in some of the same holiday traditions they would if they weren't ill.

"I think it's important to find that normalcy for the kids," she said. "It's something they'd be doing if they were at home."

A little holiday wonder

ADVERTISEMENT

The little red and white elf from the story book "Elf on the Shelf" made his first appearance at Altru after Thanksgiving when he was found playing with toys. Each day, he's found doing another activity. Photographs are taken and posted in the family lounge, where patients and family members can come see what their little elf has been up to all day.

So far, Elfie has been spotted taking a bath in the sink, playing in the freezer, drawing a picture, playing with blocks and even taking a selfie with an iPad.

"His job is to watch the kids and also (tell) Santa the good things that they do," Swenson said. "Then, at night, he reports back to Santa."

She said Elfie makes sure the kids are taking their medicine and following the doctors' orders. Swenson expects him to stick around the hospital until Christmas Eve and report back to Santa one last time before Christmas.

Swenson may be the mastermind behind the holiday magic, but she won't take any credit. As far as she's concerned, it's all part of the holiday magic. "He just showed up," she repeated with a smile.

"The kids are pretty excited," she added. "A lot of the kids around here have an elf at home, and so it's having an elf here to watch them while they're here."

Swenson added that many of the patients have brothers and sisters at home, so their elves have to stay at the house to watch over their siblings.

"We had a sibling last week that was just so excited there was a little elf to watch over his sister," she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Patient Olivia Bredeson, 3, has an Elf named Bob at her home in Langdon, N.D. While Elfie watches over her in the hospital, Bob watches over her two step brothers at home.

Olivia's mother, Lindsey Gellner, said they got Bob the elf not too long ago. They hide him in different places around the house, and the kids are always excited to find him the next morning.

Gellner said having her daughter in the hospital is hard enough, but it's all that much more difficult because it's during the holidays. But, Gellner said, "Everybody here has been absolutely wonderful."

Between Elfie and the visit from Santa, Gellner said the hospital staff's efforts to bring the holidays to the patients in the hospital have been very helpful.

Nora the red-nosed reindeer

"(Olivia) was really talking about (Santa coming)," Gellner said. "She was a little bashful when he actually got here though."

Santa was joined by Mrs. Claus, an elf and Nora the therapy dog. Sherry Burg, manager of the family birthing center, neonatal intensive care unit and pediatrics, said they do holiday activities in the hospital to reduce the hospitalization stress on the patients, families, loved ones and staff members.

Burg added that pet therapy is a big part of that process. Nora and the other therapy dogs come into the hospital every week to visit the patients and create a more relaxing environment in the hospital.

ADVERTISEMENT

During the Christmas holiday, Burg said they wanted to make her visit a little more festive. So, with green felt antlers and a bandana tied around her neck, Nora transformed into Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer for a day as she visited the families in the hospital.

"We have eight dogs in our brigade plus Nora, which also happens to be the number of reindeer, which makes it kind of fun," Burg said.

As Nora made her way to each child's room as Rudolph, smiles and laughs filled the hospital wing.

"You instantly can see people relax and the stress dissolve, a sense of healing," Burg said. "It's a joy to walk around with them."

A different kind of Christmas

Santa, Nora and Elfie may visit the hospital to bring some normalcy to the patients' stay during the holidays, but their visits also help the hospital staff deal with the difficulties of the job.

"Those are the fun things that I get to do," Swenson said. As the child life specialist, Swenson said she gets to be the fun one with all the toys, books and bouncy seats for the babies. But, she is also the one who helps children prepare for the death of a sibling, parent or grandparent.

"To see the excitement on their face when Santa walks in the room or ... when they walk in to see Elfie, definitely makes the day a little easier, especially when some days are tough," she said.

It can be tough for the nurses and doctors who spend holidays away from their own families, but Burg said they do their best to make it fun. They have potlucks and gift exchanges among the staff and provide gifts for their patients to open.

"It's different to be away from your family, but you know that these individuals are away too," Burg said. "It's all about helping people; that's why we go into medicine."

She added: "It's never a burden. It's a gift to be able to spend (Christmas) with other families."

Maki covers arts and entertainment and life and style. Call her at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1122 or send e-mail to jmaki@gfherald.com , follow her on Twitter at @jasminemaki23 or see her blog at jasminemaki.wordpress.com.

Hayden Perez meets Nora
Hayden Perez, 9, meets Nora, an Altru Health Systems therapy dog dressed as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, during his holiday hospita stay

Related Topics: ALTRU
What To Read Next
Columnist Tammy Swift says certain foods have become so expensive and in-demand that they outshine the traditional Valentine's Day gifts like roses or jewelry. Bouquet of eggs, anyone?
This week, gardening columnist Don Kinzler fields questions about planting potatoes, rabbit-resistant shrubs, and how to prevent tomato blossom end rot.
Columnist Jessie Veeder shares her reflections on the passage of time during a recent stroll of her farmstead.
Trends include vegetable gardens in raised pods and a continuing surge in using native plants and grasses.