Baby's first Christmas — with the adorable holiday outfits and the family cheer — is an exciting milestone for any parent. But for families whose babies are born early and have to be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it's a time that's more stressful than joyful.
Phelps has spent the past seventeen years making holiday rounds in the NICU at Ascension St. Joseph's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dressed as a jolly, cheerful Santa Claus, he knows how to put smiles on NICU parents' faces.
"It was a shock, and an absolutely chaotic event throughout the entire ordeal," Phelps explained. "I was overcome with anxiety and the fear of the unknown."
In December, 'Santa' visited the NICU and took pictures with all the babies. For Phelps, the visit was so impactful that once the original Santa retired, he took over the role.
"For a few minutes, it helped to bring some hope and joy and brought a smile to our faces, that we have a picture of Kyle with Santa Claus on his first Christmas," Phelps said. "(Now), even though I'm dressed as Santa Claus and I'm there to spread holiday cheer and joy, I can legitimately tell parents that I was right where they were on or about this day."
Last year, Ron and Amanda Sari spent over one hundred days in the NICU with their newborn daughter, Lillian. They were one of the families who were visited by Phelps during the holidays.
"In walked Santa," Amanda said. "It was a really great experience, because thinking that your child's not going to be home with you on Christmas was a really hard thing to deal with. And having Santa come in, and get those pictures with him for Lillian's first Christmas was really special."
Phelps has also begun to bring his son, Kyle, along on these trips. He helps his father deliver stuffed animals to the babies and their families.
"For the parents, I like to think that I am an example of health and hope that they can see their child, who's in the NICU, grow up to be," he explained.
Even though the Phelps family moved to Oregon several years ago, they still make the annual visit.
"Even though we live two thousand miles away and two time zones away, we never forgot the importance of the Santa Claus visit to the NICU," Phelps said. "We don't know these parents, but we walked in their shoes and we know exactly what they're experiencing. And despite the volatility of that environment, we hope they have a Merry Christmas."