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Waukegan firefighters light up some cheer at hospital

Waukegan firefighters Jerry Baumgartner (left) Greg Zahn others deliver gifts kids pediatric unit VistMedical Center East Waukegan including JustHall 7

Waukegan firefighters Jerry Baumgartner (left) and Greg Zahn and others deliver gifts to kids in the pediatric unit at Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, including to Justin Hall, 7, of Waukegan with his mom Karmisha Gilmore, on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 20, 2013 2:04AM

WAUKEGAN — Late December is not only the time of year when Christmas presents lift a child’s spirits, but it’s also the season when respiratory infections can take a turn for the worse and land a toddler in the hospital.

Fortunately for children like 1-year-old Jael VelaCruz, who was admitted to Vista Medical Center East this week with a bronchial infection, Waukegan firefighters made an annual ritual of bringing Christmas cheer into pediatric hospital rooms. More than a dozen firefighters swarmed into Vista East on Friday afternoon toting bags filled with wrapped presents, the results of a campaign that has been going on longer than most participants have been involved.

“It’s been around for the 14 years I’ve been here, and it was going on for years before that,” said Mike Schejbal, a firefighter/paramedic who helped coordinate this year’s effort with fellow firefighter/paramedic Marco Vazquez. “I would say it’s been around for at least 25 years.”

Lisa Lees, a registered nurse who manages the third-floor pediatric wing, praised the firefighters for providing cheer that lasts beyond a single holiday season.

“Last year, they brought us an Xbox (game system) and a flat-screen TV that we put in our sun room for the kids to use,” she said, adding that for 2012, firefighters “called us about a week ago and said, ‘What do you need?’”

Schejbal said gifts were purchased at local businesses using a combination of $500 from the Waukegan Firefighters Union Local 473 and $200 from individual firefighters “from the chief on down.” Friday’s deliveries were scheduled to hit not only the pediatric floor at Vista East, but the adolescent unit at Vista West and emergency departments at both sites.

Lees said about six patients were being cared for at Vista East, ranging in age from a 15-month-old to a 14-year-old. Firefighters dipped into their bags to fish out an age-appropriate toy and carried them to the patients’ rooms. In one case, a 12-year-old who was scheduled for surgery during the firefighters’ visit had left a request that a toy be left on his bed for when he returned.

Jael and his mother, Azalia, welcomed the visitors and the crowd watched as he unwrapped a classic Fisher-Price ring stacker. The firefighters were rewarded with a wave from Jael, and his mom said she was hoping for another gift on Friday — the word was that he was about ready to head home.

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