Ever wonder how Santa knows where to find all the good girls and boys who end up in the hospital at Christmastime? Turns out, he has an advance team: Mrs. Claus. The missus — also known as retired Child Life Specialist Jane Heser — stopped by Mayo Clinic Children's Center earlier this month and did her thing. "I tell the children, 'I'm here to find where you are so that Santa will know how to find you,'" Heser tells us.
Mrs. Claus also reads a story, leads a craft and answers questions from the curious cuties. "They're very interested in how I get back to the North Pole," she says. Heser tells them she takes "a bus and a train and eventually gets picked up by a sleigh — but not the flying one." Kids also want the scoop on what elves eat. "They'll eat nothing but cookies if you let them," Heser says. (Us, too.) But not on her watch. "I make lots of stews and soups to get them lots of protein."
With her grey hair, warm smile and cheerful personality, Heser's a natural at the role. "I love doing it," she tells us. "I love finding what makes a child smile and believe." A visit from Santa or Mrs. Claus "brings a spirit of wonderment and magic to the hospital," Heser says. It also normalizes it. "Doing something they'd do at home is reassuring to kids." As is the hope that Santa can make their Christmas dreams come true. "One child told me, 'I really just want to be home with my family,'" Heser says. "I'm praying that he gets his wish."
Dave Cahill also has an ear for kids' Christmas wishes. Last year, the former radio announcer began posing as Santa and making calls to pediatric patients. "I sometimes had to do silly voices for commercials," Cahill, now an administrative assistant in Neurology, tells us. More recently, he's adopted different voices to call his mother at the assisted living facility where she lives. "It makes her laugh," Cahill says.
That got him thinking about how he might be able to use his voice "to brighten the lives of others." He reached out to Mayo's Child Life Department to offer his services as Santa and was soon making calls from the North Pole (which we're told bears a striking resemblance to a Mayo conference room) with assistance from Child Life Specialist Mary McCoy. The calls are fun for the folks on both ends of the line. "It is so neat to hear the awe in the kids' voices when they think they're talking to Santa," Cahill says. "They're so excited."
Cahill sounds pretty excited himself when he talks about channeling St. Nick. "Little kids are so precious, and I love being able to do something to help them," he says. "To hear the joy in the kids' voices brings me joy. Not everyone can do surgery, but we all have different talents and gifts. They say that when you volunteer you get back more than you give, and I think that's true."
Bob Smith — a.k.a. "Santa Bob" — agrees. Smith, a pediatric nurse, began volunteering as the Children's Center's Santa after child life staff took note of his beard (then of "mediocre length," he tells us) and asked if he'd suit up. "I'm a little shy, so it took a little prodding," Smith admits. But by the end of his debut, Smith was hooked. He's become so committed to the role that he hasn't cut his beard in three years and even dyes it white for the big day.
Smith's similarities to the man in red are more than beard deep. "Bob has a gentle presence and jolly spirit that make him the perfect fit for Santa," Tara Lodermeier, a child life specialist, tells us. "He has a way of connecting with the patients of all ages, even the teenagers."
Perhaps that's because he can relate to the young people he meets. "I'm a big 12-year-old at heart," Smith tells us. He's also "a Christmas guy," and says playing Santa has become one of his favorite parts of the season. "I love doing it," he says. "The patients and their parents are so appreciative. You get moms wiping away tears because they didn't think their kids were going to get to see Santa Claus." Smith usually finds himself wiping away a few tears of his own. "It's heartbreaking that these kids are stuck in the hospital," he says. "They're tough little cookies, and I like helping them through."
Thanks to generous donors who stock his workshop, Santa's visit includes gifts for patients and their siblings. This year Smith handed out teddy bears, books, games, toys, Love Your Melon hats and even American Girl dolls.
"I was surprised Blake received such a large gift from Santa," Beth Rebelein tells us of the four-foot tall FastLane Action Wheels Mega Crane her 9-year-old son received. She was even more surprised that Blake's siblings received gifts as well. Beth tells us the visit from Santa "brought some Christmas spirit to Blake's room. It has been so easy to lose track of time living in the hospital, and it doesn't really feel like Christmas to any of us. Santa swinging by and recognizing all three of our kids brought a really nice bright spot to our day and our overall hospital stay."
Not Just for Kids
Kids aren't the only ones on Santa's route at Mayo Clinic. One Christmas Eve past, Paula Wagner suited up as Santa and paid a visit to her patients in Mayo Clinic's Rehabilitation Unit. "Everybody was so happy to see Santa," Wagner, a nurse on the unit, tells us. "I decided to do it again the next year."
And many other years as well. This year marks the 12th time Wagner has brought her own brand of holly jolly to the unit on Christmas Eve, visiting patients and delivering small gifts she purchases throughout the year. "One year I gave out Santa hats," she tells us. Another year, Christmas figurines. She often has help making deliveries; her dog, Decker, has been known to suit up as an elf for the big night.
"This is what life is about," Wagner tells us of the reason she resumes her role season after season. "Life is about joy, about making people happy. So many of our patients don't have families around. Playing Santa is something to make them think it's really Christmas." (We're believers.)
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