WASHINGTON (AP) _ Flat on his back, his broken leg stuck up in traction with a metal rod implanted just above the knee, 7-year-old Kyle Wood peered over his bed rail as ballerinas performed ``The Nutcracker'' in the hospital atrium.
Christmas will mark Kyle's third week in traction since his sled hit a tree. But he's in a hospital where the doctors and nurses believe holiday cheer speeds recovery, whether it's a ballet performance or art teachers helping youngsters make presents for their parents.
Don't worry, the nurses say, Santa knows this address: Kyle and some 160 other patients at Children's National Medical Center in Washington will awaken Christmas morning to find he left a present.
Later, ``We'll put a turkey in the middle of the bed, gravy on your leg and have Christmas dinner in your room,'' mom Cherie Wood joked before promising Kyle that his two sisters, brother and grandmother would make the trip from Huntingtown, Md., to open presents with him.
Being in a hospital is no fun anytime, especially during a holiday. Yet disease and injury don't respect the calendar.
Nobody counts just how many thousands of Americans spend Christmas in hospitals, but doctors spend the days, even hours, leading up to the holiday discharging as many as possible. One large Chicago hospital, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's, discharged more than 100 patients last Christmas Eve and Christmas morning alone. Children's National issues about five coveted ``day passes'' each Christmas for children stable enough to go home long enough for dinner.
Hospital workers find themselves in a balancing act with the patients left: Easing stress and lifting spirits during illness improves health. But what's the right level of holiday cheer when people nearby may be facing a final illness?
Even they often want an hour or two of respite.
``You can't ignore it (Christmas) in our culture,'' says Pat Murphy, a chaplain at Rush, which keeps observances low-key, a Christmas Eve cookies-and-punch reception. On the locked psychiatric floors, nurses sing carols while dispensing medication.
``Even if they're waiting in a very difficult situation, they still want a bit of normalcy, to have something that just reminds them of what it might be like if they were at home,'' Murphy said.
That's what prompted Dallas' St. Paul University Hospital to build a living room-like area where patients awaiting heart transplants can visit relatives amid Christmas decorations. Nurse Sandra Arnold just reserved the room for a 22-year-old mother, tethered to a heart pump but weakening, to spend three hours on Christmas morning playing on the carpeted floor with her 10-month-old daughter.
``Her baby is what's keeping her going,'' Arnold said. ``This may very well be their last Christmas, ... yet they reserved the room. It's their chance to have a holiday.''
Doctors, nurses and chaplains tell of patients who staved off death until after a major holiday or family milestone.
``It's a goal they set. In the dying process, a lot of people reach a goal and ... now realize, `It's OK for me to let go,''' says Dr. Jay Brooks, oncology chief at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in Baton Rouge, La.
Each December, he chases down cancer patients hoping to postpone treatment so they don't chance a Christmas hospitalization. What they don't realize, he says, is that Christmas can come to them: Outside of intensive care, most hospitals no longer have rigid rules to limit visiting hours or the number of family and friends who can stop by. Rules were changed after research showed family support, even a loved one's touch, can be crucial.
``I sometimes walk into the room and 20 people are there,'' says Brooks, who encourages family members to come laden with special homemade foods.
Bring in decorations or Christmas mementoes, Emory University Hospital nurse Jean Pruitt tells patients. ``Technically we should be doing that throughout, not just during the holidays but spreading the holidays 365 days a year,'' she says.