Day with Santa gives terminally ill children a chance to set aside diagnosis for fun

The new infusions used to treat 11-year-old Hunter Joiner’s Lymphangiomatosis have been hard on him this year, said his mother, Dayna Joiner.

“I haven’t been feeling too good and I had my infusions, but today I’m feeling way better and I’m excited,” Hunter said.

Despite not feeling well, he was quick to answer what he asked Santa for this year.

“I asked him for a closer relationship to all my family,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s condition attacks his bones and organs and has no cure, Joiner said. Her son has chemotherapy treatments to fight the condition but he’s in a lot of pain.

“The last two months have been really hard on him,” Joiner said.

Add in the stress of keeping up at school and dealing with the symptoms, the opportunity to have fun and forget about being sick for a day meant a lot to Hunter and his family.

Hunter was one of more than 112 terminally ill children at the 33rd annual Flight to the North Pole at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Fire Department on Thursday. Counting siblings, the event hosted more than 150 children.

“It feels really good to come here and forget about all the stresses,” Joiner said.

“It’s very fun. It’s great how many people put this party together so many sick kids can just enjoy themselves,” Hunter said.

That’s exactly what Flight to the North Pole is all about.

While children circled the parking lot on horseback and zipped down a “snowy” slide on inflated tubes, parents stopped to take pictures.

Home Depot employees helped children put together a woodwork craft and a school choir’s voices filled the air with traditional Christmas music. The Shrine Clowns provided entertainment as children and their families walked from the outdoor activities to the food served inside.

Santa Claus, who hopped out of a whirring helicopter around 11:30 a.m., greeted more than 100 children waiting outside the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Fire Department.

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Santa Claus greets children gathered at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Fire Department Thursday. More than 100 terminally ill children and their siblings got to meet Santa and receive gifts at the 33rd annual Flight to the North Pole. Sara Nealeigh snealeigh@bradenton.com

Brody Laird Milligan, 5, had his face painted like a reindeer with a bright red nose when he rushed into the room to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.

As he pulled items from his blue bag, Brody showed off each toy. His favorite was the Paw Patrol Lookout Playset, something his mother said he’s been talking about since he first saw the toy’s commercial.

Brody was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, which is several heart defects, including a hole in his heart. At just 3 days old in the newborn intensive care unit, a mistake at the hospital caused him to have a stroke, Milligan said. His heart surgery had to be postponed.

In his almost 6 years of life, Brody has been through one open heart surgery as well as another heart procedure.

“He’s been doing amazing,” Milligan said.

On Thursday, at Flight to the North Pole, none of that made a difference.

“It’s the highlight of his year,” Milligan said.

When asked what his favorite part of the day was, Brody shouted, “Santa!”

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Brody Laird Milligan, 5, goes through his bag of gifts from Santa Claus Thursday at the 33rd annual Flight to the North Pole at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Fire Department. Sara Nealeigh snealeigh@bradenton.com

Without the annual event, Milligan said between medical expenses, his birthday close to Christmas and his sister’s birthday in January, it would be a difficult time of year.

“It makes it all possible,” Milligan said.

It’s not just the event that is special, it’s the volunteers from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota Bradenton International Airport Fire Department, local businesses and multiple other agencies.

“It’s so reassuring to see so many people. It helps keep the hope. It shows there are some good people,” Milligan said. “It’s an amazing event.”

Several Eastern Air Lines flight attendants started the foundation that puts on the Flight to the North Pole in 1985.

Sheriff Rick Wells said the event, now in its 33rd year, is the “most special day” for him, his staff and the volunteers.

“These children that really go through so much throughout the year, this is all about them. This is their day. We want to make it as special as we possibly can,” Wells said.

“It really touches your heart. You know how much pain they are in, you talk to their families every year, you know the struggles that they go through and just to give them that brief opportunity to have a good time and not to be thinking about hospitals and doctors (is gratifying).”