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Public Affairs & Media Relations

Looking back at 10 years of magic

News Center | November 29, 2013

Elizabeth NistaElizabeth Nista, aka 'Chief Elf,' recounts her favorite moments organizing MUSC's Angel Tree Parade.

Sarah Pack

There are moments in life when an event changes you in a profound way. This happened in December 2003, when my manager at the time pulled me aside and asked me if I would find a family for our department to adopt.

I was no stranger to community outreach. I was active in my church and had some experience fundraising. I called a contact who put me in touch with The Salvation Army. This group had a system of vetting their “customers” that impressed me and a system of making customers accountable. Leaders put me in touch with a grandmother, a longtime Medical University of South Carolina employee who recently had to take in her three grandchildren. She was living on a fixed income, unexpectedly raising a family for the second time.  She provided us with a list of current needs that I took to my co-workers.  Within weeks, I had enough gifts to fill my minivan twice over.

This was the beginning of a 10-year odyssey that would show our employees, patients, community, and especially me, the true meaning of the Christmas spirit. It also had an impact on my family. My daughter, Meagan, and son, Alex, grew up with this as part of their lives. They both have graduated and come back to MUSC to work – I like to think in large part because of what this place has come to mean to them, through seeing years of this event, how it’s grown and the generosity of the hearts here.

Elizabeth Nista

After that first year, I formalized our partnership with The Salvation Army, and the MUSC Angel Tree was born. I learned that two to three MUSC employees or family members of employees visited the Salvation Army offices seeking assistance every week. These were just the sort of people we wanted to help. Grandmothers, single mothers, those with serious illness, people who had experienced any number of unexpected life crises and who were already working hard, but needed an encouraging word, and a hand up in the midst of their tough time.

Every November, I would place Angels on the walls of the hospital hallways with signs asking for help to make these children’s Christmas dreams come true. With little advertisement or fanfare, MUSC employees quietly pulled those angels from the walls and started filling wishes. These generous hearts included employees of our pharmacy, who filled entire hallways with toys to the point that they had to hang donated clothing from the rafters; our off-campus Parkshore employees, who somehow heard about the angels, and added us to their already packed list of Christmas donations needed by local school children; and our friends in Rutledge Tower who held bake sales, raised money with casual Fridays and other fundraisers so they could scour sales to buy truckloads of toys. 

Those first few years at noon, on the designated day for employees to bring their donations out to the MUSC Horseshoe, I stood with my mouth agape as I watched staff come out carting their gifts. As Christmas music filled the air, I watched employees with toys heaped on rolling carts; staff members pushing stretchers and wheelchairs piled high with gifts; and employee after employee strutting out those doors smiling from ear to ear. We were thrilled to see an enormous Budweiser truck pull up (decorated with a giant wreath in its front grill) and open its doors to reveal hundreds of toys.  They had gotten word of our event and wanted to participate in the fun. Our second year, we filled two 14-foot trucks with donations and another just with bikes.   

Every year of our event has been touched by one magical moment that stands out. One child had written that he wanted a violin so he could learn to play and possibly get into a better school.  Miraculously, we had just had a violin donated that year. It sat under the tree in the lobby of Ashley River Tower until event day. One of our employees, a former Charleston Symphony Orchestra member, saw it, pulled it out of its case and started playing Noel. Those glorious notes bouncing off the walls and cathedral ceilings of Ashley River Tower is a moment I will never forget.

We’ve had the services of an amazing Santa nearly every year. In his real job he’s a member of the military bomb disposal unit, but nothing in his training could have prepared this strong man for his days with us. His first year, he spent the afternoon meeting many of our patients in the Children’s Hospital. At the end of that emotional visit, we all walked outside and were stunned to see the entire Salvation Army truck had been anonymously filled with toys and bikes. Our employees are generous. It’s the nature of people working in the medical field. They want to help, and it’s breathtaking to watch. 

Dawn Brazell
Cinderella gives Brianna Causey a rose before their carriage ride.

The Rutledge Tower group decided one year to put all of their money into the purchase of bikes.  When donation day came, the employees rode them over with their director proudly leading the charge.  This became the seed of an annual parade of toys. Each year, we now are joined by hundreds in the community as we celebrate giving.  In 2009, I was joined by 40 of our finest employees in what we now call the MUSC Angel Board. These employees represent a cross section of staff and have been instrumental in taking this volunteer event to an entirely new level. 

In 2011, I received word that one of our cancer patients was critically ill and would be unable to take her young daughter on a promised Disney trip. I told our board about her and asked for help to get her a ride in our parade. One of our board members decided she could do more. She had also lost her mother at a young age and said she remembered every kindness from that time. She contacted Disney and arranged to have an authentic Cinderella costume flown overnight to Myrtle Beach. She then drove, after a full workday, to pick it up.

Word got out, and we subsequently had offers of a full-sized Cinderella costume (with donated hair and makeup services as well as dozens of roses to hand out) and the use of the horse-drawn Cinderella carriage. One of our nurses dressed up as Cinderella, and she and the child made a magical visit to mom. They emerged from Ashley River Tower to be surrounded by media from every news station and hundreds of employees, family and friends, all choking back tears. The Cinderella carriage carried Cinderella and her special charge over to the horseshoe. As it rounded the final corner, we all spied a small girl in the midst of the crowd, dressed as Snow White, attached to an enormous machine, waiting patiently on the side.

The machine is known as the “Berlin” heart, and it was keeping this precious child alive until a suitable heart donor could be found. That little girl believed with all her “heart” that she had met the real Cinderella and asked if she would please write to her. Our “Cinderella” wrote that little girl the very next day ending with this: “You are an amazing and beautiful princess. I enjoyed spending the day with you... when I wish upon a star tonight, I will wish for you to get a heart.” That little girl did get her heart and is thriving and all of ours have enlarged two sizes by being a part of this magical event.

Editor's Note: Inside Track is a periodic column by MUSC faculty and staff about the intersection of health matters and our lives. Elizabeth Nista, is quality and outcomes coordinator for the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program. To see other Inside Track columns, visit this page. 


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