Santa Brings Joy to Families in Medical Center’s NICU

Santa Claus, visiting a baby in the NICU

Santa Claus, right, portrayed by neonatologist Dr. Robert Sinkin, and “Mrs. Claus” visit a patient in the NICU on Wednesday. (Photos by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

With a fluffy, white beard he has spent months grooming, a pair of glasses that sit elegantly on the bridge of his nose and a belly that protrudes perfectly over his belt, you might be hard-pressed to find a more authentic Santa Claus than Dr. Robert Sinkin.

Well, except for the part about him not celebrating Christmas.

Sinkin, who is Jewish, celebrates Hanukkah.

But that hasn’t stopped the neonatologist from lifting the spirits of families in the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for the last 12 years.

“We recognize how difficult it is for families to have to be hospitalized with a sick child and how difficult it is for families to get together at this time of the year and celebrate,” Sinkin said Wednesday afternoon, just before posing for family photos. “Keeping families apart is very, very stressful, so we love the idea that we can bring a little joy into their lives.”

Dr. Robert Sinkin dressed as Santa

Dr. Robert Sinkin, who is Jewish, has nonetheless been portraying Santa for hospitalized children since he was a medical student.

Sinkin began dressing as Santa when he was in medical school at the University of Rochester (in New York) in 1984. When he came to the UVA Children’s Hospital in 2006, he immediately volunteered his services.

It was a stroke of luck for Susan Almarode, a neonatal nurse practitioner who had recruited snowmen and reindeer over the years, but had yet to find a Santa.

Still, Sinkin didn’t hit his stride in the role until 2013. That year, he sustained a shoulder injury that prevented him from shaving. The result was a beard that would make most Santas jealous.

“I said, ‘You’re never wearing the fake beard ever again!’” Almarode said, smiling.

Now, every September, Almarode reminds Sinkin to start growing his beard, which takes a couple of months.

Over the years, Almarode has brought in more and more characters. This year, there were a Mrs. Claus, a snowman, a Christmas tree and a bevy of elves.

Stephanie Nuckols, who has been more or less living in the hospital since her twin sons were born on Sept. 14, said the hospital has done a great job of making her family feel at home.

When Nuckols’ boys, Gunner and Blaze, were born in Winchester, they had brain bleeding and weighed roughly 2 pounds apiece.

Stephanie Ross and her twin sons, Gunnar, left, and Blaze, pose with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Stephanie Nuckols and her twin sons, Gunner, left, and Blaze, pose with Santa and Mrs. Claus

“It was really scary, but they’re fine right now,” she said. “Everything’s stable and right now, we’re just watching them grow.”

Now up to 7 pounds each, the family hopes to go home sometime in early January.

“It’s been a hard ride,” Nuckols said, smiling down at her newborns, “but they’ve taken great care of me and them.”

There were 39 babies from across Central Virginia in the NICU on Wednesday, with two scheduled to go home that night.  

In posing for photos, Sinkin gives families a memento of their baby’s first Christmas.

“Unfortunately, some children might not leave the hospital – and the families have a cherished memory,” Sinkin said.

Almarode, who has been at UVA since 2004, said people often make comments to her about how sad working in the NICU must be.

“It is true that there are moments in here that are quite traumatic and can be incredibly heart-wrenching,” she said, “but there can also be a lot of joy, too. There are good things that happen here. We see miracles every day.”

More than anything, Almarode, Sinkin and other staffers try to provide families with some semblance of normalcy – and, with any luck, a precious memory.

Earlier in the day, a girl who had been in the NICU roughly four years earlier returned with her mom for a special visit.

“She knows that instead of going to see the mall Santa,” Almarode said, “she can see Dr. Sinkin.”

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