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SHARON, PA. – Children learn early that they can count on the police when something bad happens. Even when something happens to Santa Claus. 

James Flickinger was in the right place at the right time when he suffered a heart attack Sunday afternoon: A Christmas party for the children and grandchildren of members of Sharon Police Department.

Flickinger, 80, has delighted Sharon, Pennsylvania, children as Santa Claus for decades and had once again donned his red suit for the party, where he was the guest of honor.

Flickinger had already made his festive entrance, climbing the stairs with a sack of toys to reach the auditorium on the second floor. He had taken photos with many of the two dozen youngsters waiting to receive their presents, and was on the stage distributing presents when he became ill.

He immediately received first aid from two policemen and a nurse – Amy Smith, the chief's wife – all of whom quickly performed CPR.

Smith began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, forcing air into Flickinger's mouth while  Cpl. Tom Mack and patrolman Geoff Ballard applied chest compressions. 

In terms of assisting a heart attack victim, it was a dream team.

Smith holds a doctorate in nursing practice and worked for many years in the heart catheterization laboratory at the hospital of Sharon Regional Health System. She is also acting chief executive officer at Sharon Regional.

Mack was a paramedic before joining the police force and Ballard is an emergency medical technician. He also is a medic with the Critical Incident Response Team.

"There couldn't have been a better group to be there for something like this," said Tom Amundsen, president of the Rose of Sharon Lodge 3, which hosted the party. "I don't think anyone else would have been able to react that quickly."

Patrolman John Zych was on duty in his cruiser and arrived quickly with an automated electronic defibrillator that delivers electrical shocks to restore heart beats.

The team managed to get Flickinger breathing just before an ambulance crew took over and transported him to the hospital. Smith said Flickinger was in stable condition late Monday afternoon at Sharon Regional.

"This was a perfect example of professionalism and training," Sharon Police Chief Gerry Smith said. "The total elapsed time from when he went down until he left on a stretcher was eight minutes."

Lt. Mark Johnson said other police and their spouses quickly set about moving the children quietly and calmly downstairs to keep them from being traumatized by the incident.

Ruth Bewley, whose late husband Jesse was a Sharon policeman, soon had the kids decorating gingerbread figures, assisted by other spouses and girlfriends. 

"They basically told them Santa wasn't feeling well," Johnson said.

Joe Wiercinski writes for The Herald in Sharon, Pa.

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