Santa gives thanks for surviving heart ills, cancer

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

New Haven — Forget pilgrims and turkeys. Here’s a Thanksgiving Day story about Santa Claus.

Following heart and cancer surgeries this fall professional Santa David Downs, 64, of New Haven, feels jolly about resuming his seasonal schedule.

Yes, even Father Christmas has a reason to feel thankful on Thanksgiving.

Kris Kringle or, in this case, Dave Downs, a professional Santa from New Haven, is indebted to his doctors for keeping Christmas in his present and future.

He is just now emerging from a harrowing six months where he was diagnosed with breast cancer and a bad heart, was hospitalized three times and underwent two surgeries.

Thanks to his treatment, he feels good. He may still be shy of jolly but is definitely relieved. He can walk and bend without it knocking the wind out of him.

“I’m feeling much better all of the time,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the surgeons.”

In fact, he’s already started donning the red suit. On Saturday he posed for pictures with families at a Macomb Township photo studio for three hours.

Downs, 64, who is married and has a grown son, doesn’t need the uniform to look like Santa. He has flowing gray locks, a bushy beard and, before his sickness, weighed 365 pounds.

Downs, in full regalia, with wife Phyllis, Mrs. Claus. He had previously never had a single health concern during 18 years of playing St. Nick.

Despite his big size and grueling schedule, he never had a single health concern during 18 years of playing St. Nick.

“Once you put the suit on, nothing else matters. You get pumped up,” he said.

In May, he was driving when he suddenly began sweating and felt exhausted. He pulled into an urgent care center where he had appeared several times as Santa.

The doctor thought he was having a stroke and called a police dispatcher. Paramedics brought him to a Pontiac hospital, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Then, in August, Downs felt a hard mass in his left breast. A biopsy showed it was cancerous, making him a medical rarity. Men account for less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.

Downs prepared to have the cancer removed, but doctors discovered another ailment. His aortic valve had narrowed, hampering the flow of blood from his heart.

“It backed up into his lungs so he couldn’t breathe,” said Dr. Kristijan Minanov, a heart surgeon at McLaren Macomb Hospital. “He was drowning in his own blood.”

The heart had to be fixed before it would be strong enough to withstand the cancer surgery, Minanov said. So he performed open heart surgery in September, replacing the defective valve with one from a pig.

Downs had the cancer removed the following month.

The last surgical staples were removed last week, just two days before his first Santa appearance.

“It was a heck of a fall,” he said.

It’s the busy season for professional Santas. Dave Downs is booked from early December to Christmas Eve.

He was referring to the season but could have just as easily been talking about his precipitous drop in health.

He has an appointment next week to learn about chemotherapy, but the treatment may have to wait.

This is the time of year pro Santas make all their money. Downs is booked every day from early December to Christmas Eve.

One year he made 59 appearances. Another year he drove 185 miles during a storm that dropped a foot of snow.

“This is time for Santa to make hay for his reindeer,” he said.

Downs said he feels good and, after dropping 60 pounds, is positively svelte.

Thanksgiving Day dinner will be a more restrained affair, he said. No more five desserts.

He still eats the same stuff as before but in smaller servings. One difference is breakfast: Fewer eggs and bacon, more yogurt and fruit.

But, don’t worry, kids, cookies are still on the menu.

When Downs makes appearances at homes, children invariably offer milk and cookies, squealing with delight when he accedes.

He will continue accepting the goodies, telling the kids he will bring them home to Mrs. Claus.

“Mrs. Claus likes them, too,” said his wife, Phyllis.

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell