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Athens Santa makes a Christmas comeback after pancreatic cancer diagnosis

For Jonathan and Ann Byrd Christmas has always felt pretty magical.

For the last couple of decades, the 65-year-old retired plumber and father of 3 has taken on a new role.

"I always thought it would be fun to be a real bearded Santa Claus," Byrd says. "It feels like something that I'm supposed to do."

He frequently gets stopped and told he looks like the real deal Santa, thanks to his beard.

"I go and get it bleached every year," he says.

And, Byrd loves both two and four-legged kids.

"I do a Santa Claus for a bunch of dogs at a dog grooming place, and I do our church's Christmas party," Byrd says. "But, the biggest thing that I do every year is I do Santa Claus for the Athens Symphony Christmas concerts."

In the fall of 2021, Byrd's career as Santa hit a major snag.

"My wife looked at me and said, ‘You look yellow,’" Byrd remembers. "So, I was starting to show some jaundice."

The problem was his pancreas, and it was serious.

"We had to make a detour," Byrd says. "I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

Byrd started chemotherapy right as he should have been getting ready to be Santa.

"It was a very long, dry holiday," Byrd says, his voice choked with emotion. "A lot of the things that I had grown to enjoy weren't happening."

He called around to event organizers, telling them the chemo was zapping his energy, that he could not be their "Santa" that year.

"I didn't do the tree lighting, and I didn't do the cookies with Santa," Byrd says. "And I couldn't do the symphony. It was empty."

But, when Byrd told his church he was not sure if he would be able to be Santa for the youth Christmas party, his church urged him to come anyway.

It is a decision that still makes him emotional two years later.

"I think they probably knew more than anybody else how important that was [to me]," Byrd says.

Byrd went through 12 rounds of chemotherapy at University Cancer and Blood Center in Athens, before meeting with surgical oncologist Dr. James Griffin.

"You want people to do well," Griffin says. "But, you know, when a patient walks through the door, and he looks like Santa Claus, and then he tells you that he is Santa Claus, it does add a little extra something to it for sure."

In April 2022, Byrd underwent a complicated surgery known as a Whipple procedure, which is the only known cure for pancreatic cancer.

"They opened me from right below my sternum down to below my bellybutton," Byrd says. "I think I was in surgery for 14 hours."

"The Whipple surgery is a very big procedure," Dr. Griffin says. "It's basically a rerouting of all the plumbing in your belly. So, you remove a portion of the stomach, you removed the entire duodenum, which is the first part of your small intestine. You remove the head of the pancreas, and you remove the bile duct."

Then, Griffin says, you have to put everything back together.

"You have to reconnect all those things, and you have to reconnect them in a way that works, so they can go on living their life," he says.

The surgery, and some follow-up chemotherapy, was successful, and, Dr. Griffin says, Byrd was determined.

"He had a purpose," he says. "He came into this with a mindset that, you know, his first question was, ‘Am I going to be ready for Christmas this year?’"

The answer was yes, and no.

Still exhausted from the surgery and chemo, Byrd took a break from most of his Santa duties in 2022, but returned as the Athens Symphony Santa.

"My hair was still a little thin; It hadn't really come back all the way yet, but I enjoyed it tremendously," Byrd says.

Dr. Griffin says Byrd never looked back.

"He just put one foot in front of the other, had a goal in mind, and then he surprised us. The next year, he dressed up as Santa Claus in clinic. He had gone right back to it."

Coming back to the University Cancer and Blood Center, Byrd says, felt like he had come full circle.

"Everybody that helped me and was with me on that journey, I was amazed at how important they were," he says.  "So, that's why I had to go back and tell them thank you."

This Christmas, Jonathan Byrd is back in his role as Santa, and enjoying the gift of a second chance.

"All of my scans since that surgery in April of 2022 have been absolutely clean," Byrd says.

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