When Jonathan Johnson, M.D. was a second-year resident in Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic, he got asked to take on a new assignment.
"The Child Life team asked me if I would consider being Santa," says Dr. Johnson, now chair of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology. "It was a pretty easy thing to say yes to."
That was back in 2006. Every year since (minus the COVID years), Dr. Johnson has suited up and visited some of Mayo's most vulnerable young patients in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
"It's my favorite day of the year," he says. "I like the joy it brings to families, especially when they feel so stuck in the hospital during the holiday season."
It brings joy to staff, too, Dr. Johnson says. And sometimes it brings tears.
"This year, we took a picture with a family in the NICU, and that picture was the first time the mom had gotten to hold her baby," Dr. Johnson says. "She was crying, we all were crying. It was so sweet."
Dr. Johnson says he's grateful to the elves — er, colleagues — who help keep Santa's workshop running while he's delivering cheer to patients.
"My colleagues and team members have always been amazing in helping cover my clinical duties to allow me to do this every year," he says. "And the Child Life team does an incredible job making all of this possible. They're my heroes."
For Dave Cahill, the call to become Santa came from his mother.
"I used to do voices for her to brighten up her day when she was in assisted living," he says. His mother thought he should channel Santa and brighten other people's days, too. So he reached out to Mayo Clinic's Child Life team and offered to make calls as Santa to hospitalized children who might appreciate hearing a friendly voice around Christmas.
That was several years ago. The calls have since become a holiday tradition he cherishes.
"While I hope the kids and their families enjoy the calls, I really think I get the most out of it," he says. "Let's face it, helping others in some small way makes you feel good about life and yourself. I may not have the skills to do surgery on a kid, but I can make that same kid smile by bringing Santa to him, and that's heartwarming."
Andy Saunders, a Child Life Assistant, coordinates Santa's call schedule.
"It's amazing to hear him," Saunders says. "If you close your eyes, you'd really think it was Santa."
When Ann Theis' husband Tom retired, she gave him a red union suit.
"It's the kind that the real Santa wears to keep warm at Christmas," Ann says with a chuckle.
When her husband asked what he was supposed to do with the new duds, she was ready with an answer.
"It's for our next careers," she told him.
A few months later, both Theises were in possession of Santa and Mrs. Claus suits made by a friend. "Putting on our Christmas suits makes us feel like Santa and Mrs. Claus," Ann says. "It's magic."
Each holiday, the couple brings that magic to children at Mayo Clinic. They visit patients in both outpatient and inpatient areas, listening to requests for toys and, sometimes, for much bigger gifts.
"One year Santa asked a patient's brother what he wanted for Christmas, and his response was, 'to have my sister get well,'" Ann says. "We've been Santas for about seven years, and each year we appreciate Christmas more and are reminded of what is really important."
Saunders, the Child Life Assistant who helps Santa make his phone calls, also answers letters to Santa from young patients.
"There are always a couple of kids who write that they want to feel better, and that's always very moving," he says. "I let them know that there are many people working to make them as healthy as possible."
This year, he's noticed another trend in those letters.
"The kids want everyone to be happy," he says.
May Santa make it so.
In addition to staff who generously donate their time, each year many staff members, community groups and the families of former patients donate gifts to be given to hospitalized children and their siblings.
This year much of that giving came from the Mayo Clinic Gift Shops, which hosted toy drives for Mayo's pediatric patients.
Another large donation came from a parent whose son recently passed away. "She told me she needed to cope by shopping for Christmas presents for him," says Val Stuve, a Child Life Specialist. "She selected items that he would have enjoyed through the ages."
Child Life staff displayed the gifts at a "snowflake station," where families selected presents to give to their children.
"Families were so appreciative of the gifts," says Stuve. "One grandfather was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he cried. So many families shared a similar thank you."
Tags: Staff Stories