A heart attack lead to unbelievable news – Santa Bob needed a new heart. Bob Boyer writes about his journey from transplant patient back to the Red Suit.
I may have become Santa by accident, but I am thankful every day for heeding the call of the red suit. Nothing can give greater joy during the holidays than enjoying the innocence of a small one as they sit on your lap and smile. Of course, there is always the occasional visitor who just wants to kick your shins until they draw blood, and there are some who find it comfortable to hold onto Santa by grabbing his beard until your jaw breaks off. But these are the exceptions and most children who visit Santa have the time of their life. I always try to remember that from their perspective, this is like meeting the President or maybe even God…it’s a big deal any way you slice it.
You can imagine my utter dismay when a couple of years ago after some major surgery, a doctor told me that I should no longer portray Santa due to the risk of children passing on their germs to me. Germs. What a dilemma…still, it was nice that I was still alive. In August of 2011, Santa Bob woke up at 6 in the morning with some stabbing pains in the chest, sweating like it was 150 degrees. Yep, Santa was having a heart attack.
By this time I had become a very busy Santa Claus, including securing the ultimate Santa job in my town, the “Santa’s Village” Santa. Santa’s Village is a wonderful little cluster of historic buildings in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. During the rest of the year schoolchildren visit and learn how life in Alabama was back in the early days. At Christmastime the entire place is decorated in hundreds of presents, thousands of Christmas lights, reindeer, elves, everything to become the place that Santa calls home. Hundreds of children would visit Santa for photos each night. So imagine my terror when in August I woke up having a heart attack.
Thanks to a very speedy ambulance, I made it to the hospital. I was immediately taken to the catheterization lab and a stent inserted into my “widow maker” artery to clear the 100 percent blockage. I was told I was five minutes from being dead. When I woke up after the surgery I felt like a new man. Good blood flow and no pain. Wow! Was I fortunate! I had been given a second chance at life. I asked my surgeon if this would affect my being Santa and he said it should not. He prescribed some exercise and a better diet and told me to check back with him for updates. Everything went well through the Santa season. I was indeed able to be Santa at the Village as well as lots of other places. I did brunches with Santa, dinners with Santa and lots of home visits. It was my best year ever as Santa, plus I felt much better now with my unclogged arteries.
However, my heart wasn’t as good as I really thought. After the season finished I began to feel a little more run down and weaker when I walked or did anything strenuous. In late January, all my health issues came to a head. After being admitted to the hospital for blood clots in my lungs, it was decided that a more thorough examination of my heart should be performed. After a procedure called a right heart catheterization, my doctor realized that the left side of my heart was very damaged from the heart attack, and the right side was working twice as hard to make up for it. In short, my heart was destroying itself, and my body was failing bit by bit.
I was quickly transferred to UAB Hospital in Birmingham for evaluation for a heart transplant. I was terrified, but as time went along I realized that I was in good hands with the heart team who were taking care of me. After a few weeks of evaluation and being placed on an IV drip to regulate my heart, I was nearly ready to be placed on the list to receive a heart for transplant. I asked the doctors for a ballpark timeline of how long I might wait for a heart. I was told 6 weeks to maybe 6 months for my blood type. I phoned the hospital on the afternoon of Mardi Gras Tuesday of 2012 and told them to go ahead and officially place me on “The List”.
And then Santa got his miracle.
That evening, at 9:30pm, my phone rang. It was the hospital. They had found a heart for me within just 4 hours of being “listed”. I rushed to Birmingham and had the surgery the next day.
To say it was all miraculous is an understatement. In just 4 hours, a heart was found that was a 90 percent tissue match, which is nearly unheard of. In the years that have passed there has not been a single issue of organ rejection and I have truly been given a new lease on life.
A few days into my recovery I met with some consultants and nurses about my life post transplant. I was told by one person that it would not be advisable for me to be Santa. You see, when you have a heart transplant, your body is given drugs to suppress your immune system to keep it from rejecting the new heart. That means that your immune system is much lower than normal and that you can catch all manner of flus and colds and all sorts of other bad bugs much more easily than before. So it isn’t advised to have hundreds of children in the heart of cold and flu season climb in your lap and whisper in your ear. I was absolutely heartbroken. I had regular families and clients that depended on me as their Santa each Christmas. How could I let them down?
So I spoke with several other doctors and nurses. I got other opinions. One doctor told me that she knew of transplant patients who worked in daycare centers or as schoolteachers and they had no problem being around children all day long. In the end I decide to be cautious and do some smaller events during the 2012 Christmas season. It was magical. I spent the whole season healthy and hearty and laughing and ho-ho’ing like a jolly old elf. I look back on it all and realize that God would not work so hard to make everything work out so perfectly for my transplant to take me away from being Santa. Truly, when it is all said and done, it was a heart big enough for Santa.
To learn more about transplants and becoming a donor, go to organdonor.gov
Photo courtesy of the author