A holiday flight of fancy Young Hopkins patients treated to trip to 'North Pole' via BWI

December 13, 1998|By Lesly Borge | Lesly Borge,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

There has been speculation in the past about the exact location of Santa Claus' North Pole workshop or what it might look like.

Dozens of delighted children found an answer to the first question yesterday: It's in Linthicum, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where Continental Airlines sponsored a "Flight to the North Pole" for patients of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and their families.

For many, the trip was their first ride in an airplane -- even though the plane never left the ground. But with the window shades down, the engines of the MD-80 passenger jet revving and the plane rolling fast down a runway, it was a thrill, nonetheless.

For 6-year-old Elizabeth Riddle, it was part of another first -- Christmas with her newfound family.

Elizabeth, who has a rare kidney disease, was a ward of the state. She was placed in Erick and Phyllis Castillo's home in Essex in August.

Elizabeth has systinosis, only about 100 cases of which are known worldwide, a Hopkins spokeswoman said. Her life expectancy is age 21.

"If I can give one child a home with a lot of love and family and a roof over their head even though she doesn't have a very long life expectancy, then that's the best thing that I can do for her," said Phyllis Castillo.

Elizabeth's new family also includes two brothers, Erick and Justin, a sister, Kirsten, who joined in yesterday's flight, and two dogs and a cat.

Until this holiday season, Elizabeth knew nothing about Christmas, Santa Claus or elves.

The travelers -- 24 Hopkins outpatients, 32 siblings, and parents and grandparents -- were greeted at the airport by one of Santa's helpers, who called for boarding on Continental's "Flight No. 1" to the North Pole. Once on board, they were greeted by Santa's reindeer (flight attendants wearing reindeer antlers).

"The best part for me is the parents," said "Blitzen," Elizabeth Smaistrla. "They're so excited to see their children smile. And that's awesome."

From the plane's departure from Gate C-2 until its arrival at the North Pole (a well-decorated Gate C-6), the passengers and crew sang Christmas carols.

Getting off the plane, Elizabeth Riddle waved at a greeting party of singing children dressed as Christmas trees, elves, Rudolph and another pair of reindeer. There was also a theatrical performance by the Talent Machine Co. of Annapolis. But what )) she liked most was a chance to hug Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The coordinator for Continental, Karen Platt-Little, has been staging North Pole flights with Hopkins since 1994. Two years ago her daughter, Brittany, was diagnosed with cancer and became a patient there. Now 3, she remains under treatment.

"We're doing great," Platt-Little said. "These kids deserve the world. After you've been through it, they deserve everything."

Before their North Pole trip, the patients and their siblings wrote "Dear Santa" letters, including gift requests, which Continental employees fulfilled.

Santa, played by airline employee Tom Zelsdorf, handed Elizabeth a doll she had asked for, along with a stuffed rabbit and a heart-shaped plastic jewelry box.

She left smiling broadly.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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