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Doctor brings smiles to thousands of anxious NICU parents by playing Santa

It brought them happiness during a stressful time, said Robert Sinkin, who is Jewish but has played Santa for 40 years, and is now hanging up his boots

Robert Sinkin has dressed as Santa every year for almost four decades, including nearly 17 years at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital. (Sanjay Suchak/University of Virginia)
7 min

Robert Sinkin was a doctor in training the first time he donned a fake white beard and a red velvet Santa suit in 1984.

One of his colleagues in the newborn intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester was stepping down from his role as Saint Nick. He wondered if Sinkin, then 30, would like to try playing the part.

As a skinny Jewish man, Sinkin had never played Santa. But he thought he’d give it a try.

“I put on the suit and padded it with a pillow, posed with the families and loved it,” he said. “It was wonderful to give families the precious photo they couldn’t get at the mall because their babies were in the NICU.”

The following year, Sinkin was again asked to suit up as Santa Claus. This time, he was all in.

“I don’t celebrate Christmas, but it was obvious that a visit from Santa was filling an important need for a lot of families,” he said.

For nearly four decades, from his post-residency fellowship in Rochester, N.Y., to his current position as a neonatologist at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital in Charlottesville, Sinkin has looked forward to visiting families as Santa every December.

For the past eight years, he grew a beard to appear more authentic in the role, and one year, he coated his eyebrows in zinc oxide when somebody told him his eyebrows were too dark.

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This year, Sinkin, now 68, made a difficult decision: He figured it was time to step out of his boots and give another doctor a chance to carry on the beloved holiday tradition in the NICU at U-Va.

“I’m going to be retiring in the not so distant future, so I think it’s reasonable for somebody else to enjoy playing Santa,” he said.

He asked another neonatologist, Peter Murray, to handle the Santa duties next December, noting that Murray grows a nice beard.

“I’ll be giving him my Santa suit, and I know he’ll get as much joy with this as I have,” Sinkin said. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.”

On Dec. 15, his last day as Santa Claus, Sinkin posed for photos with 51 NICU babies, including a set of triplets and a set of twins. He was accompanied by Naomi Rademeyer, a neonatal nurse who has acted as Mrs. Claus for the past several years.

“People at the hospital said, ‘We’ll miss you,’ but I don’t see it that way,” Sinkin said. “To me, it’s the idea of passing it on to somebody else to keep the tradition going.”

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Kaitlyn Key, the mother of the triplets he visited, said it was immediately apparent to her that Sinkin wasn’t going through the motions as Santa.

“He was so natural at it — you could tell it was something he enjoyed and was good at,” she said. “It’s hard to have my babies in the NICU, so seeing Santa Claus making his rounds brought a lot of joy.”

Key, 25, and her husband Tucker Key are from Big Island, Va., and have spent every other day in the NICU since their three sons were delivered prematurely at 33 weeks.

“My water broke early, and they’ve been in the NICU since Thanksgiving Day,” Key said, noting that she lives two hours from the hospital.

“The boys are all doing well and gaining weight, and we hope to be home by New Year’s Day,” she said. “Someday it will be fun to show them their Santa photos and tell them about the day he visited after they were born.”

Sinkin estimated that in nearly four decades he has posed with more than 1,500 babies and is probably featured in an equal number of photo albums.

“There are families who don’t want a picture with Santa, and we’ve always respected that,” he said. “But for those who do, it provides a way for them to have that special photo during a time they’d normally be out picking out a Christmas tree or going shopping.”

The majority of parents ultimately take their babies home, he said, but for some parents of critically ill newborns, a picture with Santa might be among their only treasured photos.

“Over the years, I’ve gotten thank you cards from parents whose child didn’t survive,” Sinkin said. “They wanted to tell me how much they treasured that picture and thank me for the memory. That means a lot.”

Others have sent him updates about a child’s high school graduation or wedding, he said.

“Their kids are going off to college and they’re remembering that time their baby was held by Santa in the NICU,” Sinkin said. “I love hearing from them.”

Sinkin’s own holiday memories revolved around celebrating Hanukkah with his parents and two younger brothers when he was growing up on Long Island, he said.

“I went to Hebrew school, and I really enjoyed having time off to celebrate Hanukkah and enjoy family traditions with my family,” he said. “But I also have fun memories of helping my friends decorate their Christmas trees.”

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“To me, it was always about that feeling of togetherness,” Sinkin added. “Some might feel that Santa is a religious thing, but to me, Santa has always been about emphasizing the love and spirit of the season.”

When he came to U-Va. in 2006, he said, he noticed the hospital didn’t have a Claus with a cause on the staff.

“I asked if anyone would mind if I started the tradition of having Santa come to the NICU, and they got on board with it,” he said. “It was fun to see the smiles when I stepped out of my office as Santa.”

Sinkin’s colleagues said they soon learned to look forward to the sound of jingling bells in the halls every December. They were delighted when he grew his own beard, but Sinkin said it wasn’t his choice.

“I’d had rotator cuff surgery, and during that time, I couldn’t shave,” he said. “When my beard came in white, a nurse practitioner told me I could never wear a fake beard again.”

His new look was an instant hit with the medical staff and the parents of wee patients.

“I think [Robert] just created a joyful moment, which is really what the season is about,” said neonatologist Jonathan Swanson, 47. “For families in a difficult spot, having their baby in the NICU, it’s a wonderful way for him to give back.”

Murray said he is happy to continue Sinkin’s tradition next year, but he knows he will have some big boots to fill.

“To follow in Rob’s footsteps is humbling,” said Murray, 40.

For Erika Jeffrey, the mother of an infant son who has been in the NICU since Sept. 25, seeing a doctor in a Santa suit brought a moment of humor during a difficult time, she said.

Jeffrey’s son Mason had to be delivered early at 23 weeks after she developed complications from preeclampsia, she said.

“We’ll probably be here another two months until his lungs are more developed, so we wouldn’t have a Christmas photo without the hospital Santa,” she said. “It’s a fine and compassionate act that he’s doing.”

When Jeffrey learned that Sinkin would be posing for photos with babies in the NICU, she went to Build-a-Bear Workshop to pick out a tiny Christmas outfit for Mason.

“It was a beautiful day to see Santa and Mrs. Claus come by and take pictures with all of the babies here — it’s something I’ll always remember,” she said. “We can’t take Mason home for Christmas. But Santa came to him.”

Sinkin said he’ll always treasure his last day of wearing red velvet in the NICU.

“To know that I’ve brought some joy and happiness to families concerned about the well-being of their babies means everything,” he said.