Christmas Eve at the Janeway.
Tonight, it’s much quieter than most evenings, as many children are discharged for Christmas. Those who remain need to be there, and the staff who work, are dedicated to keeping their patients not only as well as possible – but also to keeping the spirit of Christmas alive and well, too!
So it’s no surprise to hear the sound of jingle bells outside a patient’s door. For boys and girls who may wonder if Santa will find them in hospital instead of at home – it’s a wonderful, welcome sound!
He may be coming down a corridor instead of a chimney – but it’s him: Santa Claus…red suit, white beard, special gifts, elves and all.
It has become a beloved tradition at the Janeway for the children – their families – and the Janeway family. In fact, Santa’s visit is more of a family tradition than you might think. Santa’s chief elf, who accompanies him on Christmas Eve is Dr. Christina Templeton, a pediatric cardiologist.
The man who arranges Santa’s visits to the Janeway – and who has worn the red suit for more than 30 years – is her father, Bruce Templeton, a man who spends most of his time in the world of finance.
Together, they make very special memories – for the children – and for themselves:
“Every child must be seen on Christmas Eve, so coming into the hospital is not optional – we have no choice,” says Bruce. “You get one chance to make a memory for a child. If you can bring comfort and reassurance to a child on Christmas Eve, that’s what it’s all about.”
This Christmas Eve marks the 20th year that Christina has accompanied her father on these special patient rounds. As Santa’s right-hand elf, she leads the way, taking pictures of Santa with the children – along with family pictures, as parents and siblings of the sick child often spend Christmas at the Janeway, as well.
Christina agrees with her father – that nothing else matters but making the young patients feel safe and comforted. She says it’s become a very special family tradition:
“This time with Dad – it’s hard to put into words, except to say I believe in Santa Claus,” she smiles. “Christmas is about generosity and thoughtfulness, and families finding each other, and being with Santa in hospital on Christmas Eve is just a pure experience of that – a perfect Christmas moment.”
Bruce Templeton’s journey to the Janeway began 37 years ago, with yet another, earlier family connection – a request from his Aunt Anna, a St. John’s businesswoman, who asked if he’d ‘assist’ Santa with an upcoming Christmas event.
Bruce hesitated at first. A Santa role involved the trust of children – and required authenticity. He didn’t have a lot of experience…and he didn’t have an appropriate Santa suit. Well, if anyone could do something about that, it was Anna Templeton.
She specialized in craft-making with textiles – and within days, a package arrived at her nephew’s door. Inside: a Santa suit made of velvet, lambs’ wool and leather – including a beard made of yak’s hair, and prescription eyeglasses.
It was about as authentic as you could get – and it marked the beginning of an enduring journey of a businessman who became known as the ‘The Man in the Red Suit.’
‘Together,’ they’re responsible for dozens of heartwarming encounters during the month of December, between Santa and literally thousands of excited children. But it’s those visits with sick or injured children at the Janeway that have made perhaps the most powerful impressions.
Bruce says one mother summed it up well – on behalf of her own child, and many others: “She told me, ‘you make the not-so-normal seem normal again – if only for a brief time.’”
Some of the visits to hospital bedsides are not easy. Some of the children are very ill; some of the pictures with Santa will be the last taken. At those times, the man in the red suit is deeply grateful for the skill and support of his chief elf, Christina, whose medical experience is invaluable.
“It gives me great inner peace when Christina is with me,” Bruce says. “It reminds me of the words in the gospel of John about ‘going to prepare a place for you.’
“It’s very comforting to have my daughter, the doctor, by my side.”
He also takes inspiration from Saint Nicholas – a very real priest who lived more than 1700 years ago in Turkey, and used his money to help the needy, and who later became a patron saint of children.
“Saint Nicholas goes ahead of Santa into the very difficult situations when we know there is pain or possible loss of life, and a prayerful response is needed,” Bruce added. “I say ‘you go first, Nicholas, so I know you are standing beside the child.’ It is comforting to know that Nicholas has also helped prepare the way.”
As a cardiologist, medical rounds are a way of life for Christina. But she says the rounds she makes on Christmas Eve are worlds apart from her daily routine.
“There’s a completely different atmosphere, because of the excitement and happiness when they see Santa,” she adds. “Often they’re afraid he won’t know they’re in hospital, instead of at their house, so to see Santa reassures them they won’t be forgotten.”
The man in the red suit gives a helping hand to the Janeway staff working Christmas Eve, as well – often speaking to their children on the phone, telling them to go to bed, because he’s ‘heading to their house next!’
At the end of the evening, when all the children who can be seen, have been seen – and the red suit ready to be put aside for another year, Bruce Templeton heads home with his daughter, to continue Christmas with his wife Paula, and the rest of his family, reflecting once again on what wearing the suit has really meant.
“I think of it as a ministry, really, and it has changed me,” he says softly. “I go home with my batteries charged with gratitude, for the support I receive – for my wife, children and grandchildren. I leave the Janeway on Christmas Eve with the knowledge that I am an incredibly fortunate man.” ■
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health, based in St. John’s.