Utah grandfather who’s played Santa Claus for 40 years can finally hear children’s Christmas wishes again after getting life-changing ear implant
- Mark Woodmansee of Provo, Utah, started playing Santa at 16
- Almost 20 years ago, while dating his wife, she noticed he didn’t always hear her
- By 2016, Woodmansee was completely deaf in his left ear and had less than 10% of his hearing in the right
- He decided to get a cochlear implant, a surgically-implanted device that transmits sound to the auditory nerve
- It allowed him to hear his son-in-law’s final words and to hear the Christmas wishes of countless children ever since
Children’s eyes twinkle as they impatiently wait their turn to climb onto Santa’s lap and tell him a precious secret: what they’d like for Christmas.
But, for more than a decade, all one Utah Santa Claus was keeping a secret of his own.
‘Every kid wanted the same thing, and that was a mumble,’ Mark Woodmansee, 57, told DailyMail.com.
Woodmansee has been playing Santa for 40 years (since he was just 16), but some 18 years ago, his hearing started to disappear.
He tried reading lips, hearing aids, and the standard smile-and-nod, but nothing made children’s wishes or his family’s words any clearer.
Finally, in 2016, Woodmansee got a cochlear implant surgically placed – and a moving video captured the first time the the device was switched in and Woodmansee heard all he’d been missing for so many years.
Every year, Mark Woodmansee (right) dons his Santa suit to spread joy to local families in Provo, Utah and disadvantaged children. But 18 years ago, he began to lose his hearing
Being Santa runs in the family for Woodmansee, who carries on the tradition his father started – of listening to the needs of disadvantaged children.
Much of what the Woodmansee Santas do is charity work for kids with mental or physical disabilities.
But when the younger Woodmansee was just 16, family friends asked, as they often did, for his father to play Santa for a holiday party.
Since his father was already booked for the evening, he asked his teenage son if he’d fill in for him.
‘Of course, I said, no, I didn’t want anything to do with that,’ Woodmansee said.
‘But then, I said, “what the heck, I’ll do it.”‘
And that was that. Woodmansee ‘found it to really be a lot of fun,’ and then he just kept accepting requests and, 40 years later, he’s still doing it.
Some things did start to change, however, in the early 2000s.
Woodmansee was dating his wife, Nena, when she asked if he had trouble hearing.
He’d never noticed, but Nena said she often had to repeat herself to him.
Still, Woodmansee shrugged it off, until it began to affect his other work, as a salesman for an expedited freighting company.
He couldn’t make out what was being said in meetings. More and more, he sat in the back straining to hear what his colleagues said, but not getting much.
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Nena (left) first noted to Mark (right) that she had to repeat herself to him when they were dating nearly 18 years ago
At last Woodmansee gave in and got hearing aids, which allowed him to limp along for some five years.
When those aids started failing him, Woodmansee swapped them out for another pair.
‘I had them about two or three months, and they didn’t work very well. I thought, these are garbage, there’s no sweet spot on them,’ he recalls.
So, back to the doctor he went. Things were much more dire than Woodmansee had realized.
His left ear was completely deaf. Less than 10 percent of his right side hearing remained, and he could only recognize about six percent of the words said to him.
Woodmansee (far left, as a child) inherited the role of Santa from his father (right of left) beginning at age 16. As his hearing started to fade, Woodmansee (right) said every child’s Christmas wish became just a ‘mumble’
Nearly a quarter of older adults – those aged 65-75 – have disabling hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health.
But Woodmansee was still in his early 50s. Only about two percent of Americans between 45 and 54 have such bad hearing.
Woodmansee’s hearing had degraded beyond the reach of hearing aids. If he wanted to hear, he’d need a cochlear implant.
Hearing aids simply amplify sound, so that there’s more stimulus for a person’s remaining inner ear hairs to pick up.
A cochlear implant effectively replaces that biological mechanism altogether. A microphone pics up sound and a tiny processor translates them into signals that are delivered by electrodes implanted inside the ear to the auditory nerve so the brain can process auditory information.
In February of 2016, Woodmansee had surgery to place his cochlear implant. A month later, he was healed enough for the device to be ‘activated.’ Pictured left and right: The day his implant was switched on
After so many year’s straining, hearing fully again for the first time was an ’emotional’ moment for Woodmansee
‘I was scared to death, but I did research after a lot of soul searching and pondering and, I thought, “I’ve gotta do something,”‘ Woodmansee said.
In February 2016, he bit the bullet an underwent minor surgery to have the device implanted.
Choclear implants completely replace the ear’s hearing system, so when the device isn’t switched on, patients are completely deaf – which Woodmansee was for the first month after the operation, while he healed and the swelling subsided.
By March, he was well enough healed for the device to be switched on.
‘I was activated for the first time, and that was very emotional,’ Woodmansee recalls.
‘Now, I sit and think about all the blessings of having it, and what it’s done for more not just professionally, but personally.’
With the implant, Woodmansee has regained the ability to hear children’s wishes, is back to full capacity at work and has heard priceless words from loved ones.
Not long after he got the implant, Woodmansee’s son-in-law, Allah, was diagnosed with leukemia.
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‘I was able to be in that fight with him the year I had of his life,’ Woodmansee says.
‘One of the last conversations I had with him, I was so grateful that I was able to understand the instructions that he was giving me for taking care of my daughter, his wife.
‘And to have that exchange, where I heard him tell me he loves me and he heard me tell him I love him…without [the implant], I really wouldn’t have been in that fight.’
Woodmansee still grieves for Allah, who died in December 2018. But he’s grateful for those final precious moments with them, to be able to hear what his wife says (most of the time) and the Disney movies he shares with his 17 grandchildren.
And he continues to carry on the tradition of instilling some magic into Christmas for children and families in Provo, Utah.
‘Dad told me, “you can have the Santa suit that you continue to carry on tradition of visiting disadvantage kids and families that don’t have much for Christmas,”‘ Woodmansee says.
Now, Woodmansee can hear every word children say to him, and repeat back exactly the color and kinds of toys they want – a feat that was impossible before the implant
‘And I’ve kept that promise and done that every single year.’
Before he got the cochlear implant, when he was playing Santa, ‘I would desperately try to read [kids’] lips and a lot of times I wouldn’t promise anything and just tell them to keep being good,’ Woodmansee said.
‘Now I can hear what color of car or doll they want, and repeat it back to them.’
This season’s been as busy as ever, and once he’s heard ever wish and spread lots of cheer, Woodmansee looks forward to relaxing at home, surrounded by loved ones.
‘Once I take that Santa suit off on the evening of the 24th – being in the emergency freight business and then playing santa December is a [busy] month, and I am exhausted – so I look forward to downtime between the holidays.’