EDITOR’S NOTE: Not everyone will be home for the holidays this season. Healthcare doesn’t ever take a holiday. Emergency departments across the country will be prepared to admit patients on Christmas Eve right on through the New Year. Holiday work schedules have been in place for some time now, and caregivers will also be checking in, ready for the long nights ahead. For those who tend to the terminally ill on Christmas Eve, they’ll be prepared as well to provide comfort and support. For this new series, RACmonitor Publisher Chuck Buck interviewed those who will not be home for Christmas – but who most likely will find a sense of personal satisfaction when they’ll be on the front lines for the holidays.
Bill Swank will be sitting out this Christmas Eve.
At more than six feet tall and weighing in at more than 250 pounds, Swank is a natural for playing his favorite role: Santa Claus. He comes to this role quite naturally, with a soul filled with love and affection for kids. Moreover, he has something else to heighten his profile: a tangle of white hair and a full beard. Once, at the local Costco, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and surfer shorts, a young girl told Swank that she didn’t mind seeing Santa in his casual clothes.
Every year, in December, Swank takes the stage at San Diego’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion in the city’s famed Balboa Park, and for a brief moment in time, he captures the imagination of up to 350,000 kids of all ages. He’s been Santa Claus there going on 20 years.
But playing Santa Claus for terminally ill kids in hospice was, at first, a tough role. Swank recalls being asked to be a hospice Santa by a writer for USAToday, saying that, as reflected in her article, a six-year-old once posed the toughest of all questions, “Santa, what’s it like to die?”
Moved by that conversation, Swank buckled up and volunteered, undergoing a two-weekend training period, being assured he would bring joy and happiness into hospice homes – although Swank wasn’t quite so sure he could bring that level of magic to the lives of those young patients. He had reasons to feel that way.
“The first day was awful,” Swank admitted. “I was a serious Santa, and it was a very sad experience. Then, the louder and jollier I got, the better the visits went. Santa was bringing normalcy into their homes. Often, there were other siblings who were also housebound, because the mothers have to stay home with their dying child.”
At the end of the first year, a mother told Swank that Santa’s visit was the best Christmas the family ever had. Swank said some kids died before his visits, and many died soon after their experience with Santa. Swank attended one funeral, but said he’d never do that again, saying it was too incredibly sad.
“There were a lot of lovable kids and families, but the kid I remember best was a 7-year-old Mexican boy,” Swank recalled. “He told me that he wanted to be Santa when he grew up.”
“Why wait?” Swank asked the youngster.
With that, Swank removed his Santa coat and his Santa hat, and wrapped his big black Santa belt around the kid’s waist – twice.
Then, Swank asked why the 7-year-old wanted to be Santa.
“I want to do nice things for other people,” the young patient told Swank.
“I hugged him and said that he understood the true meaning of Christmas,” Swank said. “The boy’s name? Jesus.”