Ronnie Salmon was like just about every other youngster on Christmas morning in the central San Joaquin Valley -- surrounded by presents and people who care deeply for her, an ear-to-ear smile on her face.
But there was one big difference. Ronnie wasn't at home. She was sitting on a bed at Children's Hospital Central California, hooked up to an IV tube as part of her treatment for leukemia.
That big-hearted fella from the North Pole found her.
"I got a Barbie car from Santa," said the 9-year-old fourth-grader from Porterville. "I got all kinds of stuff."
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Joy, hope and a catch in the throat -- that's the essential message of Christmas. It was delivered in countless ways and places on Sunday, and one of them was to be found in a small room at the Craycroft Cancer Center that has been Ronnie's home for the past three weeks.
Of course, Ronnie wasn't the only youngster spending Christmas morning at the sprawling hospital just north of Fresno, on the other side of the San Joaquin River. There were about 200 patients throughout the facility, including another 20 in the Craycroft Center.
Hospital officials knew from past experience that more would be admitted throughout the day via the emergency room.
Whether ill or hurt, the youngsters know when Christmas beckons.
"Children are children, even when they're in a hospital," Children's Hospital spokeswoman Jill Wagner said.
That being the case, Wagner said, Children's Hospital and its legions of supporters go the extra mile every year to make sure young patients and their families have a memorable Christmas.
Each patient on Sunday got a stocking with gifts. With the day's main meal, they also received a "tray" gift -- a toy or a stuffed animal or a decoration.
The seasonal celebration didn't begin on Christmas morning. Wagner said 53 community groups visited the hospital this month to bring cheer to the patients. The choir from Sunnyside High School gave a concert. Fresno police officers brought gifts. So did firefighters from Fresno, Clovis and the California Department of Forestry.
Patients who went home shortly before Christmas received a wrapped gift as they left through the front doors.
Each youngster admitted into the hospital on Sunday got a stocking full of goodies.
"We know that beyond medicine a whole lot of other things aid in a child's healing," Wagner said. "If they're happy and they're comfortable, they're going to heal better and they'll have a better experience. Our staff believes that. You don't have a lot of crotchety people in a children's hospital."
But there is a lot of reality. Ronnie spent Christmas morning with her father, also named Ronnie. He had been by her bedside throughout a three-week recovery from what he called her "hard" chemotherapy.
Salmon said this is Ronnie's second fight with leukemia. As a 2-year-old, she battled the disease at Children's Hospital. Some of the same doctors and nurses are helping this time.
Seven years ago, Salmon said, doctors gave Ronnie an 80% chance of survival.
Salmon said Ronnie's long remission had raised everyone's hopes. But he recently noticed a change in her. She tired easily. The normal bruises of a kid who loved to play soccer and tag on the playground at Rockford School didn't heal quickly.
Salmon brought Ronnie to Children's Hospital in September for a checkup. During the examination, he looked through a window at his daughter and realized the cancer had returned.
"I knew it," Salmon said. "Sure enough, the doctor came and told me. I thought, 'Here we go again.' But this time, it's worse."
Salmon said Ronnie's survival odds this time are 50-50.
"I don't like flipping a coin," Salmon said. "But I think she's going to get through it."
Ronnie already has the Barbie dolls. She said they're going to love their new car.
But the sleek set of wheels isn't what's most on Ronnie's mind this Christmas morning. The doctors said she can go home after lunch.
She will have to come back, though. Her father said the trip from Porterville to Children's Hospital figures to become a routine over the next year or two.
But such a precise time frame is unfathomable to a 9-year-old.
The immediate future is more manageable. Ronnie could hardly wait to burst through home's front door and surprise her five sisters.
"I'll say, 'Merry Christmas!' " she said.
And the long future, one without needles and hospital beds, is equally easy for her to imagine.
"We're going to be living there forever," Ronnie said of home. "Hopefully."