Sick children – including several from Walter Reed – fly to Santa’s workshop
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2017
DULLES, Va. — Call it anticipation, or fun, or maybe even magic. Whatever it was, it started even before the children set foot at the airport gate Saturday.
In the days leading up to the journey, parents held their breath praying the kids would be OK to go. Then the snow crystalized and United Airline pilots, flight attendants and staff worked through the night, volunteering their time to prepare a wonderland. And finally, the day arrived.
“I am going to the North Pole!” declared O’Rian Jolley, his face glittering with fresh face paint and a smile that went from ear to ear.
Balloons and shimmering streamers wrapped Gate D7 at Dulles International Airport. O’Rian’s mother, Sarah Jolley, said her son is going through a tough period with degenerative mitochondrial brain disease that is eating away at his muscle function. His stomach is beginning to stop working and soon he will go to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio to have a gastric pacemaker inserted. His father is a retired Air Force technical sergeant so he’s covered under the military insurance, but while Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., does care for some sick children, it was not equipped to handle O’Rian’s condition.
Some days O’Rian “doesn’t want to move and is hurting a lot,” said Sarah Jolley. “It’s awful.”
Still, he makes parachute cord bracelets that he sells for donations and in October, he donated $1,000 to Children’s Hospital to “find a cure.” He calls them hope bracelets.
O’Rian was one of more than 100 children facing life-threatening conditions who came out to Dulles Airport on Saturday for a chance to fly to Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole. The annual event – a collaboration by United Airlines and Children’s Hospice International along with hundreds of volunteers – brings the children and their families on an unique “Fantasy Flight” to the North Pole. The plane takes off and lands a short time later at another part of the terminal where passengers emerge into a wonderland filled with their favorite story-time characters who come to life, along with toys, games, sweets and all things Santa Claus.
The children, including several military kids, along with their parents and siblings, get a few hours away from being sick.
“For two days he’s been super stoked,” Sarah Jolley said. “Today, he’s on vacation.”
A flight to the North Pole
“Welcome to Flight 2799, service to the North Pole,” said gate agent Daniel Irizarry.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas,” sang staff dressed as Santa’s helpers.
Children jumped as they walked down the jetway. This was no ordinary plane. It was festooned with streamers and sparkling snowflakes and all kinds of Santa decor.
“When the plane takes off, we gotta wear seatbelts,” said 3-year-old James Anthony Lindh III, nicknamed Tripp, whose feet barely reached the edge of his first-class seat.
“He’s a happy guy,” said his father, Lt. Col. Tony Lindh. Tripp was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August and is being treated at Walter Reed. For Tripp’s mother Christina Lindh, the boy’s cheerful nature makes it easier. For his father, that can sometimes make it harder because here and there, he can almost forget just how sick his son is.
A few seats back in business class, Elaina Stover looked out the window. The 9-year-old who is also fighting leukemia was having none of this joy. Instead, she pulled her green Grinch hat down low on her forehead.
Elaina wasn’t feeling well this morning, her mother Amanda Stover explained. She was a perfectly normal kid until she was diagnosed in April. Now she’s going through intense chemo therapy and has had serious complications. Her organs were failing and she spent a month in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed – her father retired from the Army two years ago – and she was placed on eight weeks of steroids. It’s been rough.
“I told her to choose festive,” her mother said of the hat. “And that’s what she came out with.”
“I’m the Grinch who stole Christmas,” Elaina told flight attendant Teresa Little.
“What did you do with all the gifts?” asked Little, dressed with a double-pointed Santa’s hat.
“I gave them back to Cindy Lou,” said Elaina, referring to the little girl from Whoville in the Dr. Seuss story who believes there is good in everyone – even the Grinch.
Little roared with laughter. “I am taking her home with me,” she announced to those sitting nearby. “She knows where the presents are.”
“If you can take care of the gifts,” Little said to Elaina, “I know you have your seatbelt on.”
After a rhyming flight safety poem that started “’Twas the flight before Christmas and all through the plane, all the passengers stirred and the stews were insane,” the flight attendants had everyone close the blinds. Then the plane took off. Twenty minutes later, they touched down at the North Pole.
Children’s Hospice International and United Airlines ran their first Fantasy Flight from Dulles in 1989. The program was such a success that it expanded to United Airlines stations around the world. Many of them stopped after Sept. 11, 2001, but the Dulles flight continued, taking kids from children’s hospitals, hospices and from Walter Reed, along with their parents and siblings.
Ann Armstrong-Daley, who founded Children’s Hospice International, said the event draws in hundreds of volunteers to make it come alive, while dozens of companies sponsor and offer free gifts, food or events.
The deep pain that these families feel is not lost on anyone, said Jeni Stepanek, whose son Mattie loved Fantasy Flight so much, he became an elf – an annual job that he relished until he died in 2014.
“Some of these families go through so much,” Stepanek said. “This is a gift.”
Mattie was a gifted child poet who published seven books of what he called “Heartsongs” in his 13 years – topping the New York Times bestseller list with his hopeful and inspirational verse. He appeared on Oprah and co-wrote his last book on peacemaking with Jimmy Carter.
He was the longest surviving of Stepanek’s four children who were all afflicted with muscular dystrophy that she had unknowingly passed on to them before she was diagnosed. The rest died under the age of four.
“Some of these families, their children won’t be here next year,” said Stepanek, who sits in a wheelchair and has a breathing tube. “For one day, it’s like the world revolves around them, rather than them having to jump onto a revolving world – and without its challenges.”
The North Pole
The scene outside the jetway is magical. The land – occupying eight gates at the terminal – is a giant glittering world filled with living incarnations of every storybook, cartoon or movie character they’ve ever dreamed of meeting. There’s Santa’s elves and reindeer, stormtroopers from Star Wars, alongside Big Bird and Ernie, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Miss Maryland is there and there are Disney princesses.
As they entered this place of fantasy, eyes went wide. There’s so much to absorb. Soon, a little girl plunged into the arms of Princess Elsa from frozen, giving her a huge hug.
She high-fived a minion from Despicable Me and danced past a Chick-fil-A “Eat More Chik’n” cow dressed in a Santa suit.
There’s a Cat in the Hat, an astronaut and Dalmatians.
“That was funny when stormtrooper gave me a high-five,” said a delighted Tripp.
“Stormtrooper was a big deal,” said Tony, his father.
Then Tripp saw the racing presidents from the Washington Nationals baseball team. His parents brought him over to pose for a picture. When one put his giant hand on Tripp’s back, the boy laughed with glee. “That was funny,” he said.
One day last August, Tripp lost all color in his face and began screaming in pain, his mother, Christina Lindh said. It went away as quickly as it came. But a few days later, he walked into the kitchen, laid on the floor screaming and when she picked him up, his back kind of arched. She told his sister Penelope, who is 4, to get her phone and she recorded the episode before taking him to the doctors. The video helped them determine that the boy was not just anemic – something far more serious was going on.
Tripp has hard days, when he clings to his mom and has dark circles under his eyes. For the most part, he takes his illness in stride. He calls the port embedded in his chest for chemotherapy “like Ironman,” gets his treatment and goes off to play. But they are bracing for the intense cycle that begins next month.
“The last few months have been all about treatments,” Christina Lindh said. “It’s nice to not think about it and just enjoy them and be happy.”
“I couldn’t get him to sleep last night, he was so excited,” Tony Lindh said.
Santa’s helpers sang carols and Princess Elsa and Anna sang from Frozen. Volunteers lined giant tables distributing sandwiches, cake, cookies and donuts.
Santa and Mrs. Claus held visiting hours and handed out bags filled with presents to each child.
When it was finally time to leave, they all carried bags of gifts and stuffed animals, a bit of exhaustion, and a wondrous sense that there is a wonderland after all.
Call it magic. For a few hours on a snowy Saturday before Christmas, some of the sickest children among us forgot that they were sick.
Teresa Little, a United Airlines flight attendant and self-proclaimed "Santa's Helper," dashes through the cabin as she leads Fantasy Flight passengers in a spirited sing-a-long of "Jingle Bells" prior to takeoff at Washington-Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES