The story of a Santa who granted a dying boy his final Christmas wish touched hearts around the world, but skeptics are raising concerns about story details that hadn't been verified.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, whose Santa story was originally shared by Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable, says the account of a terminally ill five-year-old boy dying in his arms at a hospital is true.
WBIR 10News has independently verified several critical details of this story, but has agreed not to publish those for the sake of privacy. Schmitt-Matzen maintains his desire to protect all names involved.
In addition, Schmitt-Matzen's wife, Sharon, of 38 years spoke with 10News on Wednesday night and also helped fill in details of her husband's story and his response to what happened that day in what she said was mid-October. That differs from Schmitt-Matzen's original account of the timeline, in which he said the death happened "about six weeks ago." Schmitt-Matzen told 10News he had the time wrong and that his wife remembers those things better than he does.
“I know how he reacted that next morning, and this is something that weighed so heavy on him,” Sharon Schmitt-Matzen said of her husband’s experience. "I just know that he just needed time by himself to accept what happened because he obviously wasn't prepared for a child to die in his arms."
Out of a promise of privacy to the family and the nurse, Schmitt-Matzen has not revealed any names or identifying details.
Eric and Sharon Schmitt-Matzen admit if the nurse would come forward and verify this story, that would address a lot of questions. They also said the family – if they choose to speak – could confirm the facts as well.
Sharon said she hopes the nurse "would, at least, step forward and say, 'Yes, I did call Eric and I can verify that he came.'"
The nurse, Schmitt-Matzen said, fears her job could be in jeopardy if she came forward, for calling a non-family member into an ICU without prior hospital approval and then having that person publicly share his story.
"If she were to be fired for what she did out of the love of that child, then the hospital administrators and HR, they need to take a second look at their policies," Sharon Schmitt-Matzen said. "I really don't think that she should be fired."
"Believe me, if there's anybody in the world who would like to see her come out, it's me," Eric Schmitt-Matzen said.
He, however, will not be the one to reveal that information - or anything about the family.
"If the family wants to come out and say who they were, I'll stand beside them. I'll support them in any way I can, but the way my life's been upset in the last three days, four days, don't do it. You have enough problems. Your family will be tore apart more than it is now," he said. "But, from a selfish point of view, they'd be coming to my rescue. But who needs rescue here? Me or them?"
As this story has spread around the world, that missing proof has caused some to question Schmitt-Matzen’s account.
Schmitt-Matzen has worked as a professional Santa for six years, in addition to his day job as a mechanical engineer and co-owner at Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro.
It was in his capacity as a Santa, he said, that a nurse came to know him, when she'd bring a child to see him at Christmas. Schmitt-Matzen said it was this nurse who called on him one day in mid-October to come to the bedside of a terminally ill little boy.
The boy was more concerned about missing Christmas than he was about dying, Schmitt-Matzen said.
“He couldn’t fathom what dying was, but he knew how much fun Christmas was,” he said.
During the visit, Schmitt-Matzen said, the boy died in his arms.
It was so emotionally impactful, he said, he told not only his wife but also several of his friends, two of whom he reached by phone on Wednesday evening, when 10News was conducting an in-person follow-up interview with him.
Daniel Cunningham is one of those friends. He lives in Blount County and recalled what Schmitt-Matzen told him in a phone call exactly one week after the incident happened.
"You kind of said that (the boy) gave you a hug, then he just went limp at that point, and then you said that you looked up at the ceiling, kinda was fighting back the tears at that point," Cunningham said. "You were noticeably shaken in your voice about this whole ordeal."
Schmitt-Matzen then showed 10News written messages on his phone to two different friends. Both exchanges match dates in Schmitt-Matzen's mid-October timeline of the ordeal. Those dates, he said, were well before he was ever contacted by columnist Sam Venable.
Two friends, Schmitt-Matzen's wife and time-stamped messages help support the story of a man visibly shaken by the hospital visit.
If that’s not enough to convince somebody, Schmitt-Matzen said he doesn’t care.
"If I talk now, Santa folded. And I ain't doing it," he said resolutely. " I'm not doing it."
It's a story that's close to his heart - one that brings him to tears in the re-telling - and he's sticking by it.