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Lucy's Shriners Hospital Christmas

Donors, staff helping Santa make holiday special for girl from Guatemala

On Christmas morning, Santa – who bears an uncanny resemblance to medical resident Alex Wendling – is scheduled to make a special stop at the inpatient unit of Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis.

The jolly old elf has found the temporary home of a 12-year-old girl from Guatemala named Lucy. He will come bearing gifts, created in his workshop thanks to the donations of area Shriners (members of Shriners International, the philanthropic organization that supports the Shriners Hospitals for Children health care system). Reports say they include some items from her favorite book and movie series, Harry Potter. “I like Hermione the best,” Lucy said of the female heroine. “She’s intelligent. Brave.”

Those are two words the staff members at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital are using to describe Lucy herself.

‘I’m sad’

Lucy was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 4. As 2020 began, her condition advanced rapidly. The pain became unbearable. That’s when St. Louis-based World Pediatric Project stepped in. This St. Louis Shriners Hospital partner organization routinely brings children from developing countries to the United States for treatments they could not get at home.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic mushroomed, Lucy’s scheduled May visit turned into a holiday stay that leaves her and her mother, Evelyn, apart from the rest of the family for Christmas for the first time.

“I’m sad,” Lucy said in the days leading up to Santa’s visit.

She underwent scoliosis surgery Nov. 30 with one of the nation’s leading spine surgeons, Chief of Staff Scott Luhmann, M.D., who fitted her with a halo traction device. He will conduct a follow-up surgery Jan. 11 to fuse her spine and insert support rods that will correct the curve. The surgeries will stop her condition from advancing and potentially becoming life-threatening while also giving her a future of wide-open possibilities.

Christmas in Guatemala

Yet the sadness is understandable; Lucy is missing her family. What we call the nuclear family for Lucy extends far beyond her older sister, Luisa, and father, Roberto, to aunts, uncles, cousins and, specially in her heart, her maternal grandparents.

Their traditional celebration centers on Las Posada, which runs from Dec. 12-23. It commemorates the journey Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for refuge for Mary to give birth to Jesus. “My grandparents always welcome the Posada,” she said through Marcela Spraul, St. Louis Shriners Hospital respiratory therapy manager and a native Spanish speaker from Colombia. “We have the tradition to go to their house in the morning to help them prepare everything for that night to welcome everyone.”

The goodies include punch, coffee, hot chocolate, a chicken and black beans pastry, and tamales. But it’s the family prayer time that is most special.

Then, on Christmas Eve, the entire family comes to Lucy’s house to celebrate “Noche Buena.” “At night, the children go outside to burn fireworks,” she said. “It is a time to share and have fun.” It also includes drinking punch and eating tamales.

This all leads up to Christmas Day, when the family gathers at her grandparents’ home to “eat, share time and open the Christmas gifts. Christmas in Guatemala is a very happy time, and it is a very pretty celebration.”

Christmas is waiting

But instead, this year, it has been just Lucy and her mom – no tamales, no fireworks, no large family prayer. While it isn’t rare for the hospital to play host to a child over the holidays, it is uncommon for someone to be here from so far away at that time.

“We always try to make it special whenever a child is here for a birthday or a holiday,” said Tammy Keese, director of patient care and nurse executive. “This isn’t easy for them or their family all those miles away. We want to make sure they know they’re loved.”

That means bringing Christmas cheer to Evelyn, too. World Pediatric Project officials have contacted Santa to confirm her “nice list” status and make sure gifts will be brought her way, as well.

Mother and daughter have plane tickets for a Feb. 8 return to Guatemala. They will land back in a tropical climate far different from the frigid Midwest they are slowly becoming accustomed to. And Christmas won’t quite be over. “My sister has decorated the house,” Lucy said. “She’s leaving the decorations up and saving all the gifts for when we get home and can all celebrate together.”

So in reality, this isn’t the story of a Christmas missed or even really about a Christmas spent in a foreign land. Rather, it is about the enduring spirit of the holiday that, if you’re flexible and put yourself in the right mindset, can truly last all year long.

Lucy with her mom

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