White-bearded Dennis Jager sat on the edge of a hospital bed, clasping his wife’s delicate hands in his own.
This isn’t where you’d expect to find Santa—on a Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital bed instead of a sleigh; gripping Mrs. Claus’ hands instead of worn leather reindeer reins.
But Dennis, who for more than two decades has played Santa for children in Michigan and beyond, suffers from a heart rhythm disorder—atrial fibrillation, an irregular, rapid, chaotic beating of the upper chambers of the heart.
This season, instead of giving gifts, he received one.
Dennis became one of the first three patients in West Michigan to receive a recently FDA-approved device called the WATCHMAN.
If all goes as planned, the new device will allow Dennis to stop taking blood-thinning medication within months of undergoing the implant.
And that—for a man who frequently bruises his hands in his workshop—is jolly news indeed.
Diagnosed with the heart rhythm disorder and placed on blood thinning medication about 10 years ago, the Ludington, Michigan, resident has to be careful to avoid bumping, bruising and playing any reindeer games that could cause external or internal bleeding.
“He spends a lot of time woodworking in his workshop,” Gloria said about her husband—an unsurprising occupation for Santa, even a part-time one.
“I’m looking forward to living a more normal life than being preoccupied about blood clots and bumping myself,” Dennis said.
Atrial fibrillation is common, but dangerous because it can cause blood to form clots in the heart’s left chamber. These clots can break loose and travel to the brain, lungs and other parts of the body, causing stroke.
The most common treatment to reduce the risk of stroke is blood-thinning medication warfarin, one side effect of which, as in the case of Dennis, is a difficulty to form blood clots, which can lead to excessive blood loss and even death.
“I’ve had two major bleeds since I’ve been on the medication,” Dennis said. “I can just bump into a grocery cart and end up with a bleed.”
The WATCHMAN is a catheter-delivered, parachute-shaped heart implant about the size of a quarter, designed to prevent the migration of blood clots. The device is inserted into the heart through a catheter placed into a vein in the leg during a one-time, minimally invasive procedure in a cardiac catheterization lab.
Duane C. Berkompas, MD, interventional cardiologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group, who inserted Dennis’ device on June 15, said warfarin is not well tolerated in some patients and can cause significant bleeding complications.
“The WATCHMAN device is designed for atrial fibrillation patients who can’t use blood thinners because of the increased risk of bleeding complications,” Dr. Berkompas said.
Just as Rudolph flies through the night, Dennis is hoping for a speedy and well-guided recovery.
He looks forward to picking up the reins again. Stronger this time. With more steady heart and hand.
He longs to get back to the children and the business of touching lives and hearts.
Santa and Mrs. Claus’ eyes twinkled as they recalled journeys of Christmases past.
One boy wanted an accordion more than anything else in the world, although he knew it was beyond his family’s means. The Jagers knew where there was an accordion free for the asking–in their own home. They arranged for it to be under the boy’s tree on Christmas morning.
“When we got home and listened to the answering machine, he had called the North Pole and was playing us a song,” Dennis said. “There are opportunities to have an impact. It’s a way for us to reach back out to give back because of all of the things we’ve been given.”
Laughter erupted as they shared the next tale: One year, a girl goaded her younger sister into pulling Santa’s beard to see if it was real, because she claimed to no longer believe in Santa Claus.
“Little girls like your sister get a lump of coal,” Dennis told the girls. “If your sister gets a lump of coal, she’ll know I’m the real Santa.”
Little did the girl realize that Gloria worked as an intensive care nurse with the girl’s mother. That year, on Christmas morning, she did indeed unwrap a lump of coal, and believed, at least for another year, in Santa.
Dennis’ eyes grew misty as he tiptoed through more sensitive memories, such as playing Santa for children with incurable diseases, and for underprivileged children with little hope for any kind of present, let alone the one on their list.
“There are opportunities to help,” Dennis said. “It’s really a God incident more than anything else. Some kids just want a bike–they don’t care if it’s a new bike or a used bike. They just want a bike.”
After 22 years of playing Santa and Mrs. Claus, Dennis and Gloria have almost become them. Dennis’ white beard is prototypically Santa-esque. In recent years, however, through gastric bypass surgery, he has shed 150 pounds of his bowl-full-of-jelly.
“A friend told me, ‘I can make you look like Santa at Christmas time, you don’t have to look like that all year long,’” he said.