When Ben Nolt, a professional Santa Claus who delivers cement and garbage trucks all over the country in the off-season, went in for back surgery in 2017, he was hoping for some relief. But the 72-year-old LeRoy, Minnesota, resident would experience problems for two more years before the mystery of his recurring wound would be solved.
That fall, Ben was experiencing spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces in the spine that can put pressure on the nerves/ This can cause pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness.
“Bouncing around in the truck all day didn’t help,” Ben says. “It got so bad, I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Ben had spinal surgery at a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, but a few months later, his wound opened. Ben was treated with antibiotics and the wound closed, but then it opened again. His doctors found that his bones were not healing properly and that he had a staph infection. He was treated again with antibiotics, but the problem continued.
By January 2019, Ben’s wound had opened four times, the last while he was driving a cement truck to Florida. That’s when he connected with Shelly Lwu, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System — Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Dr. Lwu was determined to find an explanation for Ben’s recurring wound.
“This had been going on for two years, so it was obviously not a routine post-op infection,” Dr. Lwu says. “I ordered a CT scan and an MRI to get a good picture of both the bone and soft tissue.”
Identifying the source of the problem
The scans revealed there was a leftover piece of detached bone near Ben’s spine. Dr. Lwu knew this most likely was the source of Ben’s recurring staph infection.
“This little piece of bone had no blood supply and no white blood cells to fight infection,” Dr. Lwu says.
She removed the piece of bone and sent it for testing. The results came back positive for staph infection. Since this procedure, infection has not recurred.
Ben’s recovery came just in time to take a special trip.
“I thought I was going to have to cancel an Alaskan cruise I was taking with 75 other Santa Clauses,” Ben says. “It was already paid for. The day I got off my antibiotics, my wife and I flew to Fairbanks.”
Ben was able to enjoy his Santa vacation, which included a visit to North Pole, Alaska.
Back to bringing joy as Santa
When the holiday season rolled around again, Ben was ready to put on his red suit and bring joy to thousands of children — as many as 600 per day.
“It takes a lot of energy,” Ben says. “I really enjoy it.”
Between portraying everyone’s favorite jolly old man in a retail store and at private events, he estimates he has played Santa for over 30,000 youngsters.
Ben, who wears a white beard year-round, brought some holiday spirit to his care team, as well.
“It was fun to take care of Santa Claus,” says Joshua Williford, a physician assistant in Spine & Neurological Surgery who helped care for Ben after his procedure. “Every time he left, he told us how many days it was until Christmas.”
Dr. Lwu says it was rewarding to finally be able to bring Ben relief.
“It was great to be able to help him with something he’s been dealing with for so long,” she says. “And he was a lovely man to care for.”
Ben says he couldn’t be happier to be back on the job, and he had a pleasant experience working with Dr. Lwu.“It was excellent,” Ben says. “She told me everything that would happen, and then it happened. I’d recommend her to anybody.”