By Robert Scally, assistant editor
Every Christmas season for the past 28 years, Santa Claus has been on the same wavelength with hospitalized kids in Orange County, California.
Thanks to the efforts of a group of amateur radio operators, (also known as "hams") who operate the North Pole Network, for one special day each December, Santa speaks via two-way radio with children hospitalized at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, located in Orange, California.
The exact origins of the concept of having Santa speak via two-way radio with sick and injured children who are hospitalized during Christmas is a bit murky, but the concept dates back to at least the 1950s.
While other groups of ham radio operators around the nation have similar "talk with Santa" efforts, the Orange County North Pole Network is the oldest continuously operated project of its kind directed exclusively for hospitalized children, said April Moell. Moell, a retired occupational therapist and ham radio operator, founded the North Pole Network in 1976 with her husband Joe Moell, who is also a ham radio operator.
p>Moell said she got the idea for the "talk with Santa project" in the mid-1970s, not long after she obtained her amateur radio operator license. Moell was then working as the director of occupational and recreational therapies at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, and had heard about a "talk with Santa" project at a Los Angeles area hospital. The program moved from St. Jude to Children’s Hospital of Orange County in 1978 and has been taking place there every Christmas season since.
"I was a hospital person, a patient care person," Moell said. "I realized what kind of impact that something like this could have [on young patients]."
The "talk with Santa" project has evolved over the years as the North Pole Network gains experience and technology advances, Moell said.
Moell, who is also known by her call sign, WA6OPS, serves as a radio operator, going room-to-room and making contact with Santa, who speaks to patients directly from the North Pole during a break in his busy gift-production schedule.
A typical contact between a child in the hospital and Santa goes something like this:
Moell: "North Pole Station, this is WA6OPS at Children’s Hospital. Santa, we're in room 205 by bed 2. Do you know the little boy here?"
Santa: "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas to Children’s Hospital and a special hello to you, Billy. How is your new puppy and your new little sister?"
The impact on the patients is priceless, she said.
"You should see the look on these kids’ faces when they realize that Santa knows them," Moell said.
The secret to the personalized and specific omniscience of Santa is simple, Moell said. All it takes is a little "elf work."
That’s where people like the staff nurses and Janet Leitch, child life specialist for Children’s Hospital of Orange County, come in.
"We look for clues," Leitch said.
With the help of Children’s Hospital of Orange County nurses, Leitch helps pull together a list of all of the children in the hospital, correlating names with bed and room numbers. Information is also gathered form parents or family members so Santa can name names and make specific references to siblings, pets, favorite activities and so on, she said.
On the day the North Pole Network comes to the hospital, "elf scouts" armed with two-way radios feed details about what each child has in their room or beds back to Santa.
Santa, call sign NPØLE, is actually ensconced in a radio equipment-filled room away from sight and is supported by a number of other volunteer radio operators. Santa uses those details about the young patients to amaze the children and convince them that he indeed knows all, Leitch said.
The effect of communicating directly with Santa is enhanced by sound effects such as the wind blowing at the North Pole, the sound of rowdy elves in background building toys or reindeer practicing takeoffs and landings, Moell said.
For his part, Santa is supremely diplomatic with each child, Leitch said. "He never promises anything."
The North Pole Network has been working with Children’s Hospital of Orange County long enough to have worked out many of the technical kinks, such as making sure the radios don’t interfere with medical equipment or hospital communications. The Children’s Hospital of Orange County staff works with the North Pole Network to make special arraignments to give the group access to areas such as the ICU, where visitors might not always be allowed, thanks to a level of trust that has been built during the past three decades, Moell said.
Moell herself can identify with many of the young patients. She missed one year with North Pole Network when she was being treated for a form of leukemia. In remission for 20 years, Moell said her experience made the North Pole Network all that more important in her life.
"The experience is really worth all the work and I feel that I’ve been given extended longevity," Moell said "I’ve been given a chance to help somebody."
Moell said that the North Pole Network’s radio link-ups with Santa aren’t just for kids. During a few years, when the group had enough volunteers, the North Pole Network has taken it program into senior centers and adult rehabilitation centers.
"One year we had this big truck driver who looked like a biker reduced to tears when he talked to Santa," Moell said. "Another time an 80-year-old gentleman grabbed the mike and said ‘hey Santa, we go back a long way don’t we?’ and then had a long conversation with Santa.
Small miracles have also taken place during North Pole Network visits, Moell said.
A depressed teen was coaxed from her gloom and wound up talkative and laughing by the time the radio operators left her room. On another occasion, a child recovering from a brain tumor operation who hadn’t spoken since her surgery, said, "Hi Santa," much to the amazement of her parents and nurses. During a conversation with Santa, a girl who was blinded as the result of a head injury she suffered after falling from a horse indicted for the first time that she could see again.
The North Pole Network’s experience connecting to Santa also led to the creation of the Hospital Disaster Support Communications System (HDSCS), an emergency radio communications network. Organized by Moell in 1980, the HDSCS is a network of more than 90 ham radio operators who can link more than 30 hospitals in Orange County in the event that the phone system fails in during a disaster.
Leitch, the child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said the North Pole Network always helps lift the spirits of both patient and the staff.
Last year Santa talked with more than 60 patients at Children’s Hospital of Orange County via the North Pole Network. This year the North Pole Network will tune into Santa at Children’s Hospital of Orange County on Dec. 20.
"This is always a huge success," Leitch said.
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