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Santa brings a little bit of ‘normal’ to the NICU

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Shortly after her birth in 2008, Maddie Wagner, daughter of Ellen Sassenberg and Vince Wagner, dons a tiny Santa hat in the NICU at Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus. (Contributed photo)
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During this holiday season, many parents of new babies celebrate with a trip to the mall to see Santa.

Getting a photo of your newborn in Santa’s arms at the mall is, unfortunately, not something parents with babies in the NICU can do. But 14 years ago, as a pediatric resident, Dr. Jonathan Johnson(now a Mayo Clinic pediatric cardiologist) stepped in to give his time to the NICU patients and their families at Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus by donning a Santa suit and white beard.

"I think I fit the body type," he joked. "But I also had a medical background, so I was able to deal with the various wires, tubes, that are attached to the little ones while they're in the hospital. The nurses and team members were able to reassure the families that the person playing Santa knew how to hold their little ones."

The NICU is truly a team effort for babies and their families.

"It can't be said enough though, that I'm just the guy in the suit — the Child Life team here works for weeks if not months to prepare for these visits, get presents for each and every child, presents for each of their siblings. This all wouldn't happen without them," Johnson said.

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Dr. Johnson was not a father when he began playing Santa back in 2005.

"Since my kids were born, it's put me in the parents' shoes a lot more," he said. "I have so much respect and appreciation for how they pull their families together despite the critical medical situations in their lives. All of those families everywhere whose children are in the hospital over the holidays, no matter which holiday they celebrate, they just don't get to enjoy the holiday season the same way. We're just trying to bring a little joy to them during that time."

One local family remembers their Christmas in the NICU. Ellen Sassenbergand Vince Wagner’sdaughter, Maddie Wagner, was due on Dec. 31, 2008. However, Maddie arrived on Nov. 27.

"My best memory of Doc J was his kindness and honesty with us," Ellen said. "He was with us at the beginning when things looked very uncertain."

Ellen said "there is absolutely nothing normal about being in the NICU." But she remembers the care and attention from the NICU team, especially during the holiday season.

"That morning, when I came in, that hat was on her. The nurses had picked it out and dressed her up. I guess that could be called a moment of ‘normal.’ To me, it all felt more like camaraderie," she said. "It was so sweet."

After four weeks in the NICU, Maddie went home on her due date.

"This is my favorite part of the whole process — seeing the families smile and light up when they see their little ones getting their pictures with Santa," Johnson said. Sometimes they will see me in clinic years later and show me the pictures of their kids with Santa many years ago, and it is so much fun to see those pictures."

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