PEOPLE SAY that
pregnant Jewish women carry their unborn children with such
pride because they believe they may be carrying the Messiah.
In the Christian world, the celebrated birth of Jesusthe
Christ, the Messiahwas prophesied by Isaiah:
a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace" (9:5).
await the birth of their child with the same joy that Mary
and Joseph felt. They expect their child to grow strong in
body and spirit. They assume that their offspring will work,
love and be a blessing. So it is with alarm that a woman in
early labor gives birth to an underweight (below five pounds)
and underdeveloped child. Suddenly the hopes and dreams for
the child and the family seem fragile, wrapped as they are
in such a tiny, frail body.
Some of those
tiny babies are fortunate to be born at Vanderbilt University
Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt has a Neonatal
Intensive Care Unit (NICU) that treats underweight babies.
In 1961 and
1962, internationally known Vanderbilt physician Mildred Stallman
was doing research on low-birthweight infants. She engineered
the first infant respirator (later called "incubator"). She
also set up the first medical ward for working with premature
infants, who are called "preemies."
Now at Christmastime,
the NICU at Vanderbilt is abuzz with the news that Santa Claus
will be coming to pay a special visit to all the preemies.
Yes, that jolly old elf, an American cousin twice removed
from St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, visits the
NICU during December. As Santa holds each infant in his hands,
a photographer takes a picture. Each family gets a copy to
who is this Santa?
His name is
Bill Dickson, and he takes his Santa job seriously. "I see
this as a part of my ministry as deacon, a symbol for little
children of what doing good is supposed to be about," says
member of St. Anne Parish in Nashville, was ordained a deacon
in 1980. With his corporate and management background, he
has worked with the chancellor and finance board of the Nashville
Diocese. And he has participated in social-justice and interfaith
Kacky Fell (left) and Phil Hatcher enjoy snapping shots of
Santa and Markeith Porter at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
to the Vanderbilt NICU, Bill Dickson shows up as Santa Claus
at a day-care center, a retirement facility and a local YMCA.
thing that impresses me is how tiny babies are clearly
Deacon Bill Dickson
How did he
change from deep-voiced deacon to Santa Claus? "My wife and
I are in a water exercise class at the YMCA," he explains.
"Six years ago, I got to know a retired Presbyterian minister
and his wife in the exercise class. During a break the wife,
a nice lady, paddled up to me. She asked, 'Are you willing
to be Santa in a day-care center run by Kings Daughters?'"
The children at the center were kindergarteners from single-parent
families living in subsidized apartments across the street.
"I don't have
a Santa suit," Dickson told her. "And what happened to the
guy who used to do it?"
the woman said as she paddled away.
A year later,
when Dickson was a deacon at St. Patrick Church, a woman in
the choir asked him, "Would you be willing to be Santa for
the preemies at Vanderbilt?"
He says, "By
that time my wife had made me a suit. I asked the woman, 'What
happened to the guy who used to do it?' She said, 'He died.'
So now I know I have my terminal job. I'm 74. I feel comfortable
for the Job
Dickson is a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he
had no experience with preemies. His wife accompanied him
that first year at Vanderbilt, which proved wise. "I couldn't
have gone through it by myself because of the emotional strain,"
the NICU is an experience in germ awareness. Signs on the
wall read, "Hand washing required before infant contact."
Typically there are about 48 babies split between rooms labeled
"NICU I & II" and "NICU Intermediate." Shifts of 20 nurses
around the clock monitor the preemies' IV's, skin color, breathing,
eating and eliminating patterns, and weight gain. For preemies
up to two pounds, nurses use diapers that are so small they
also fit an average-size baby doll.
The Santa tradition
was started by Dr. Mildred Stallman. "She spoke to me about
the tradition," says Dickson. "The early Santas had fake beards,
but I let mine grow in September so that I would have a natural
On the day
Dickson becomes Santa at Vanderbilt, the NICU floods with
parents, siblings, employees, photographers and news cameras.
"I am the background," explains Dickson. "I tell them, 'Get
as good a picture of the babies as you can.' The pictures
are appropriate for the season, scheduled close to Christmas
because on the other side some babies may not be alive."
prepare little blankets and hats to cover up the tubes that
are attached to the preemies. The photo session takes about
two and a half hours, as Santa goes from baby to baby. Sometimes
Dickson involves siblings and parents in the picture, especially
if the baby is strong enough to be held.
instruction from a nurse on how to interact with each preemie.
"Sometimes I sit in a rocking chair. I've held twins who were
healthy enough, one in each arm. Some I can hold, even though
they are still connected to equipment. Sometimes I only slip
my hands under them and position them for the camera. Some
are still in incubators so I position myself in the pictures."
Eve the NICU posts pictures of Santa with each of these babies,
who are new gifts to the world. The families are proud and
grateful, says Dickson.
cuddles Jacquelyn Little with support from the preemie's mom,
that impresses me is how tiny little babies are clearly human
beings," he says. "The tiniest one in 1997 was one pound and
two ounces. Once I asked if there were crack babies and HIV-positive
babies. Yes, I was told. I don't ask what the problems are
of each individual. These are tiny babies being cared for
in the best possible way."
involvement in this ministry is obvious. "It is exciting,"
he says. "One girl who was a preemie and is well into her
teens comes back every year to visit."
But the job
of being Santa is not all fun and games. Dickson's greatest
sorrow, he says, happens after he leaves every year. "We are
talking about very expensive medical procedures. I think of
all the poor babies in the world who have none of this care
I hold a baby who is very ill. I ask myself, if I were the
grandfather, would I want this child to live? And I say no.
But then I say, 'Good Lord, help them, please.' It is up to
the day he is Santa at the hospital "is the most emotionally
and spiritually difficult yet satisfying thing I do all year.
I look forward to it. It is always interesting to see the
pictures afterward and to hear the comments of appreciation,
not to me but to Santa Claus.
with that is my feeling about St. NicholasI believe in saints.
I am doing what I ought to be doing and am getting extraordinary
help from angels and the spirit of God. When people are going
down a ski slope, when everything is right, you sense it.
It is that kind of feeling. It is not just a human being holding
those preemies. If I had to handle it in a purely human way,
I couldn't do it."
tiny babies die. "I know they do," says Dickson. "Looking
at them, holding them, you clearly know some of them aren't
going to make it. That's God's work. I'm independent of it.
For some who have been born with terrible difficulties, I
don't feel bad about death because they will pass on to another
situation where they will be nurtured and cared for.
Brown is one of Santa's littlest helpers in Vanderbilt's Neonatal
Intensive Care Unit.
is a little human potential," he says. "Every one is unique.
They look different, they act different. Nurses do not handle
them in a routine way. They know their names and their parents'
each of these infants special care. "My concern in physically
handling them is not to do anything that will injure them.
I was told that I talk to the babies all the time, something I didn't
realize. I try to get them to open their eyes."
he is a link, that the Holy Spirit is there in the NICU. He
says that "these tiny figures who are vulnerable, who need
care, emphasize the interdependence of the community and the
responsibility of everyone to help them in any way they can."
It's not a bad Christmas message.
may be coming from behind, but God has a plan for them, a
welcome into the world like the one penned by composer Aleksandr
Scriabin: "The universe resounds with the joyful cry, 'I am.'"
works at Project Reflect Education Programs in Nashville,
Tennessee, and is a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation.
She writes on family, community and faith topics. Rick Musacchio
is the editor of Tennessee Register, the diocesan newspaper
of Nashville, and is a photographer who formerly worked for