Join The North Pole Network

by April Moell WA6OPS and Joe Moell KØOV

This article appeared in 73 Magazine, December 1996.

Once again this year, hams around the country will take their gear to local hospitals so that youngsters confined there will have the opportunity for a personal radio chat with "the real" Santa Claus at the North Pole. Some groups will go a step further and use video facilities to let the kids see Santa while they talk to him. Nothing compares to the joy of making a youngster happy during the holiday season and smiles are virtually guaranteed when hospitalized kids talk with St. Nick.

We discovered the joys of ham radio Santa visits twenty years ago when April was a department head at a large hospital. One December day, she heard that a group from a prominent Los Angeles area ham club would be coming that evening to let the Pediatric unit children talk to Santa. She phoned the club's contact person and volunteered to serve as a hospital liaison.

As luck would have it, only one ham from that club (Jack Lemaster WB6ECB) showed up. Rather than disappoint the kids, the three of us put Santa on the air that night. That hooked us; we've done it every year since. We have lots of help from the hospitals and from members of the Hospital Disaster Support Communications System (HDSCS), an Amateur Radio Emergency Service unit here in Orange County. Even though Jack has moved out of the area, he occasionally comes back just for this activity.

Personalize It

Everyone loves to be called by name. What could be a greater thrill to a youngster at Christmas time than to have Santa himself recognize you? That's exactly what happens when HDSCS visits Childrens Hospital in December. After the roving operator is introduced to a patient, the radio call is made: "Calling the North Pole! This is WA6OPS in Orange County, California. Santa, we're in room 217 of Childrens Hospital by Bed 2. Do you know the little girl here?"

For a few seconds, her receiver emits the sound of reindeer, sleigh bells, the cold north wind and then, "Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas, Jennifer! How is Chips, your new little puppy?"

How could Santa know all that? No doubt Jennifer is an instant believer. Santa has established his credentials in a big way, thanks to earlier sleuthing by hospital elves. Over the past week the nurses and therapists quietly collected information about every patient to be visited. It doesn't take a lot---just enough to assure the youngster that Santa is for real.

Even the most skeptical kids are hooked by a well-prepared Santa. In one four-bed room, patient #1, an 8-year-old boy, feigned great disinterest as we came in, so we talked first to the others. He perked up noticeably as Santa greeted patient #2 with his name and some personal information. As Santa next gave a similar hello to patient #3, patient #1 bounced up and down in his bed and shouted to patient #4, "That's the Man! That's the REAL one!" He could hardly wait for his own turn now.

Of course, information gathering must be done inconspicuously by the staff. Usually there is useful data in the medical chart and their own notes. Santa can make use of the child's name, age, nickname, grade in school, teacher's name, family members, city of residence, pets, a favorite toy or food, special interests, and hobbies. Only a few of these items are necessary for any particular child.

If it would be helpful to have words of encouragement from Santa and Mrs. Claus such as, "Work hard in your physical therapy," let Santa know in advance. Of course, Santa should never promise to bring specific gifts, but if it is known that a certain item is planned for a child, it is appropriate for Santa to comment that "The elves are working on it in the workshop." Elves should be sure to let Santa know of any sensitive matters. For instance, you don't want him to mention Dad when a Dad doesn't exist.

Most of our elf work is done before the hams arrive, but it's also good for Santa to have last minute intelligence to fill in the gaps. A "spy elf" goes along with our ham entourage from room to room. She quietly observes what the kids are wearing, what decorations are in the room, what they are doing, and what family members are present. Then she goes outside the room and surreptitiously clues another elf at Santa's communications center, who relays the information to Santa.

The staff at Childrens Hospital loves elf work and looks forward to the hams' coming. Sometimes they even sneak in a little "behavior modification." When Santa greeted one youngster by name and asked if he was still sucking his thumb, the thumb shot out his mouth and stayed out for the remainder of the visit.

Gifts For The Kids

Should your North Pole Network group bring a little gift for each youngster? We have heard of groups that give out candy canes after each Santa QSO. But they risk protests from the nursing staff. Sweets may violate dietary restrictions and can be an infection hazard for patients in isolation. Small toys or stuffed animals are better. Of course for infants and toddlers these items must be "kid proof," with no parts that can be pulled off and ingested.

For the past twelve years, we have given out 2-inch round buttons that say, "I talked to Santa on Amateur Radio." Everyone loves them, including parents and nurses, who frequently ask if they can have one, too. (Sure, if they talk to Santa!)

These buttons are great publicity for our hobby. The patient and his entire family are reminded that Amateur Radio is the service that brought them St. Nick. In the early years, we heard ourselves referred to as "the CB group that talks to Santa Claus," despite our educational efforts. Since we started passing out the buttons, the confusion has stopped and they have become collectors' items.

Such buttons are easy to obtain and are popular with youth sports leagues. Your club may have a member with a button-making machine. The cost of materials is not high. Another alternative would be an adhesive sticker, about the size of a name tag, with the same words.

A New Name

Old-timers say that this activity has been going on in southern California for 40 years, traditionally called "Operation Santa Claus." Tradition is nice, but we stopped using that name long ago. It was causing much confusion to both hams and non-hams alike. At least one of the military services and several other organizations here have used this same name for their holiday charity efforts for many years. When we would mention our "Operation Santa Claus" activities, listeners immediately thought we went around collecting toys.

Today we use a much more descriptive title: The "North Pole Network." In news releases, we call it the "North Pole Amateur Radio Network" for further clarity. If you like this name, we encourage your group to adopt it.

We Nixed the Boob Tube

After our first year of Santa hospital QSOs, we got the bright idea of using 430 MHz ham television (ATV) to let the kids see Santa as they talked to him. The next year Santa transmitted on that band and we lugged a cart with a TV set, ATV receiver and yagi antenna from room to room. Multipath propagation of signals through the hospital corridors resulted in noisy ghosting video. The kids weren't impressed.

For the next several years, Santa was visible in each kid's room via the hospitals' closed-circuit TV system. Video and audio quality was much better, but Santa had to be on camera for almost three hours as the radio operators went room to room. Besides being hard on Santa, who had to "mug" for the camera in between QSOs, it meant we could not covertly give Santa last-minute elf information. In addition to the radio link work, we found ourselves putting on a full-blown TV production each year.

Nowadays, we use radio only. Santa likes it better, because he can wear what he likes. He can concentrate on talking to the patients and not worry about his appearance. The kids are just as happy, because their imaginations can create a better Santa image than we could ever provide.

To insure good radio coverage of each room, we put Santa in an out-of-the-way office within the hospital. The link is on an obscure simplex frequency, rather than a repeater. This has eliminated inadvertent and malicious interference, which could ruin the event and be an embarrassment to both hams and hospital staff.

We have discovered that 223 and 440 MHz are much better for Santa communications than two meters, for two reasons. UHF signals propagate much better than VHF within the halls and floors of hospitals. Second, computerized hospital equipment often radiates "birdies" that cause loss of receiver sensitivity at 144 MHz, but they are usually not present on higher bands.

Include All Ages

Everyone wants to be nice to kids at Christmas. North Pole Network is just one of the many events at Childrens Hospital of Orange County every December. There are carolers, clowns, firemen, and so on. But who brings holiday joy to older hospital patients? We have, and you should too.

Christmas time is an emotional roller coaster for a patient with a physical disability. The joy of the season can be offset by the miseries of infirmity and loneliness. You might not think that a talk with Santa on radio would mean a lot to a teenager, a middle-ager, or a senior citizen. After all, the patient is old enough to realize that Santa isn't really 3800 miles to the north. But for many, this annual visit is a real uplift.

The patient is cheered by the friendliness and heartwarmed by the fact that a group of strangers thought enough of him or her to put on a special program. All the wonderful memories of Christmases past are rekindled. As one elderly gentleman exclaimed into the mike, "Santy, it's good to talk to you again. You and I go 'way back!"

Of course North Pole Network is not appropriate for surgery or maternity wards. But consider places where patients are confined for long periods of time, such as rehabilitation centers and rest homes. Some patients cannot leave their rooms because of isolation requirements or other limitations. Try to arrange the radio link so that Santa's helpers can go to individual rooms, instead of having to herd all the patients into a day-room or lounge.

Getting In the Door

If someone in your club is or knows an employee of your local hospital, have that person find out whom to contact to arrange for a North Pole Network visit. Every hospital has its own way of organizing activities, so it may take some persistence to find the right person to coordinate your event. At large childrens' hospitals, ask for Recreation Therapy or Child Development staff to assist.

At most local community hospitals, you will have the best results by starting with the public relations department. These employees often arrange visits from local volunteer groups such as Christmas carolers and firefighters. Keep in mind that many facilities have only a few children in the Pediatrics unit. As Christmas approaches, most will be sent home if possible and only the sickest will remain hospitalized. Consider visiting both adults and children at these locations.

Hospitals with rehabilitation centers usually have Recreation Therapists who arrange special activities for patients. If there is no Recreational Therapy department, contact the Occupational Therapy department. Convalescent or skilled nursing facilities have an Activities Director or Recreation Leader. These people are always looking for activities for their patients and if you present North Pole Network appropriately, they will be delighted to plan for your coming.

Sad to say, most hospital staff have no or little familiarity with Amateur Radio. It is important to meet with staff beforehand to acquaint them with what you want to do. Show them this article and tell them about your previous North Pole Network experiences, if any. Demonstrate the equipment you plan to bring into the hospital.

Be prepared for some hesitancy. Most hospitals are concerned about interference to their medical equipment. Assure them that ham hand-helds are not like cell phones (usually banned in hospitals). Experience has shown that the potential for interference is very low. (See the article on this topic at the HDSCS site.) But if they do not want you to transmit from rooms with respiratory equipment or specialized monitors, comply with their requests without argument. Always use the lowest transmit power possible. Use a speaker-mike on your hand-held and sterilize it with alcohol as directed by the nurses when you visit patients in isolation rooms.

As North Pole Network veterans, we know what a wonderful feeling this program can give to hams, patients, and the hospital staff. We hope your club will join the fun this year.

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© 1996 Joseph D. Moell. All rights reserved.

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