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Santa visits children at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis

Stan Russell visits Lucas Case, 3, a patient at the ChildLife Center at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis. Russell first put on the Santa suit in 1996. (Dec. 23, 2014)
Stan Russell visits Lucas Case, 3, a patient at the ChildLife Center at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis. Russell first put on the Santa suit in 1996. (Dec. 23, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

People noticed Stan Russell when he walked into the lobby of Via Christi Hospital St. Francis on Tuesday.

A stranger walked up to him and asked for a photo of the two of them together. Russell obliged.

He is, after all, Santa.

Dressed in a red and white suit and black boots, sleigh bells jangling as he walks, Russell is the epitome of what Santa is supposed to be: jolly, kind and genuinely interested in the fellow souls he comes across.

On Tuesday, Russell visited children at the ChildLife Center at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, children who most likely will spend their Christmas in a hospital surrounding.

For nearly two decades, Russell has portrayed Santa in hospices and hospitals, both in Wichita and the Dallas area.

It started in 1995 when his wife, Ernestine, became deathly ill. For 11 months, she was in Via Christi hospitals or medical facilities, including five months in the intensive care unit.

At one point, her weight dipped to 72 pounds and doctors feared she was nearing the end of her life.

“She went from the perfect picture of health to being very sick in a matter of days,” Russell said.

The fact she survived is why he portrays Santa today, he said.

“It started off as a way to give back,” he said. “Being in the hospital, I learned to have such respect for the doctors, nurses, tech and everybody who goes through there.

“I was with my wife every day, and they took as much care of me as they did her.”

The Russells are still friends with some of the nursing staff from 1995, he said. Not long after, he began playing Santa.

“The first time I did this was at a Christmas party for children in a hospice group,” he said. “I was scared about what I might be asked from the kids.

“One of the counselors patted me on the hand and said, ‘They are just kids.’ I found that as I started to give back, it became part of my ministry.”

In 1998, Russell was transferred by Pizza Hut to the Dallas area. When he retired this past year, he and Ernestine moved back to the Wichita area.

“I enjoy putting the suit on and having people see joy,” he said.

He visited 3-year-old Lucas Case on Tuesday, and the boy’s face immediately brightened. Russell encouraged Lucas to sit on his lap and held him as they talked.

Santa asked Lucas whether he liked trains. He nodded.

Santa asked whether he would like presents. He would.

Last week, Russell visited the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph.

“Every time I put on the suit, I think of my wife,” Russell said as his voice cracked. “Or people who have lost loved ones. I do this for the staff and for the kids that just need to be held and nurtured.

“Everybody has something they are called by God to do. People who know me know I always try to be a man of integrity, honesty and trustworthy.

“That is what Santa is.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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