Two-year-old Nathan Ayers stared wide-eyed from his Piedmont Medical Center bed Wednesday as Santa and Mrs. Claus entered his room, bells-a-jingling and shouting a merry "Ho, ho, ho!"
Santa leaned close to Nathan, his long curly white beard resting on the boy's hospital bed, and gently asked, "What would you like for Christmas?"
The shy boy began placing pieces in a puzzle that he had started before Santa arrived.
Santa asked again.
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Nathan, too overwhelmed to answer, looked at his mother, Shea Ayers.
"We sent you a letter. It's in the letter," Shea Ayers said to Santa.
When Santa asked for a high-five, a silent Nathan put down a puzzle piece and high-fived Santa.
Mrs. Claus offered Nathan a choice of gifts. Nathan chose a stuffed white fluffy lamb with black ears and hugged it.
Nathan was one of three children who were hospitalized Wednesday morning in the PMC pediatric unit. Shea Ayers said Nathan, who was admitted on Tuesday, is scheduled to go home Christmas Day.
Santa -- played by Klaus Schmolke and his wife, Janie, as Mrs. Claus -- have visited hospitalized children at PMC on Christmas Eve for more than 20 years.
The Schmolkes previously had worked at Piedmont. When Janie Schmolke was the gift shop manager, she came up with the idea to have Santa visit sick children on Christmas Eve.
Janie Schmolke said that before she and her husband began making visits to the hospitalized children as Santa and Mrs. Claus, a hospital volunteer delivered Christmas gifts to the youngsters on Christmas Eve.
"I thought it was funny that a woman in a pink jacket would deliver the presents," she said. "I thought it should be Santa."
Janie, 59, and Klaus Schmolke, 67, begin making their annual rounds as Santa and Mrs. Claus the day after Thanksgiving. They appear at the Rock Hill Christmas parade and at many other local organization's events such as child care centers and nursing homes.
The most children the Schmolkes ever visited on Christmas Eve at Piedmont Medical Center was 12, and one year the unit had no sick children, but usually the average is three or four, Janie Schmolke said.
"We love to do it," she said.
Klaus Schmolke, a native of Germany, said the only time he has missed playing Santa in his 21 years visiting children at PMC was when he cut off a finger during a work accident just before Christmas in 2005.
Because of the accident, Klaus Schmolke said he retired from his job. But he said he will be Santa for many years to come.