United Airlines takes ailing kids to visit Santa Claus 

Shonte Henderson spent her 15th birthday in a hospital bed while doctors tried to cool her 104-degree fever.

For more pictures from the trip to the North Pole, click on the photo to the right.

For 47 days, Shonte battled a rare blood disease that inflamed her veins and vessels, and was exhausted when doctors let her return to go home to Vallejo on Friday. But after missing out on Thanksgiving, school and a birthday party, there was no way Shonte was canceling her plans for Saturday: a trip to the North Pole to see Santa.

Shonte was among 50 of the Bay Area’s sickest children who boarded one of the largest and fastest airplanes at San Francisco International Airport, a Boeing 747-400, for a special Christmas flight.

United Airlines employees raise money all year to put on the Fantasy Flight, which partners with local hospitals to whisk away families with sick children from the anxiety of hospital visits, medical procedures and hard-to-pronounce illnesses.

“This is just so nice,” said Sarah Williams, who has made weekly visits to the hospital since February, when 2-year-old daughter Maliaya was diagnosed with leukemia.

“It takes the weight, the seriousness out of everything, to just have fun and see smiling faces,” Williams said.

Airport employees dressed as elves escorted children and their families to a terminal crammed with face-painting stations, a Lionel train set, a children’s choir, sports team mascots and Olympic athletes.

Peering out from under oversized Santa hats and clutching toy stuffed penguins, the children shuffled among the activities until boarding time.

Aside from meeting the man in red, the flight was the highlight for many children who had never been on a plane, including Mistafa Khan, whose parents drove three hours from Chico for the event.

“It’s just going to be so fun,” said Mistafa, 15, who is treated for low hemoglobin.

Flight attendants read safety instructions to the cadence of “The Night Before Christmas,” straightened errant snowflakes and garlands, strung through the cabin, and prepared for take off. Finally, the plan left the ground, to cheers from everyone on board.

“When the plane lifts off and you hear that cheer,” chief pilot Andy Allen said, “that cheer is really something special.”

Christmas cheer

United Airlines provided some holiday smiles with its trip to the North Pole.

150: Volunteers
50: Children from local hospitals
220: Total passengers
150: Build-a-Bear stuffed penguins given to child passengers
$15,000: Estimated value of donations made for the Fantasy Flight, not including fuel
$20,000: Cost of fuel donated by Chevron

Source: United Airlines

sgantz@sfexaminer.com

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Sarah Gantz

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