Patient dear to Santa's heart grateful to be alive after his own heart stopped several times

At this time of year, there are a lot of celebrations going on. Perhaps some of the biggest, believe it or not, are among people beating the odds in Houston hospitals. We caught up with someone who’s near and dear to Santa’s heart, whose own heart almost quit before Christmas.

"Ho, ho, ho," Gary Dellacroce bellows from his wheelchair. 

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If that ‘ho, ho, ho’ has a familiar ring to it, well, guess who it is? Dellacroce has put smiles on faces while wearing a jolly red suit for years. But this Christmas season, he’s no longer 305 pounds, his beard is a bit shorter, he’s in civilian clothing, and we found him at Memorial Hermann Hospital after his heart stopped several times. 

"They came and found me, and they said, ‘He coded. He’s on life support.’ It was frightening," says Gary’s wife Ann Dellacroce.  

"By the grace of God I’m here," adds Gary. 

"He’s very fortunate to be alive, and we’re very fortunate to have him here," explains UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann Hospital Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Brittany Owen, who says shortly after Dellacroce received life-saving coronary stents. "I happened to be checking on him just by the grace of God, and so I came in to see him, and he didn’t look very well. Next thing we know he stopped breathing right in front of me," Dr. Owen explains.

"This lady saved my life," Gary smiles while giving Dr. Owen a big hug. 

The Dellacroce's, known affectionately as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, since he’s dressed up as Santa for 15 years, are rock stars around the hospital.

"Oh that’s our friend," Mrs. Dellacroce shouts to a passing food service worker, and he stops to chat with them. We resume the interview and a short time later Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Salman Arain is walking by, spots the couple, and excitedly stops to talk.

"He’s on the nice list," says Mr. Dellacroce and his wife adds with a smile. "Yes he’s our stent man, not our stuntman, but our stent man."   

After a two-month stay in the hospital, Dellacroce will be able to spend Christmas at home, but what kind of Santa would he be if he didn’t come bearing gifts? This present is for all of us. The 74-year-old wants us to know the symptoms of heart failure and to never ignore them.

"His fatigue was growing more and more, and he was using a walker in the house going from chair to the bed," says Mrs. Dellacroce. 

"I’ve slept in a recliner the last couple of years," adds Mr. Dellacroce. 


"If you find yourself sitting straight up at night because you can’t breathe laying flat, because you feel like you’re drowning or if your legs have become tree trunks because there’s so much fluid building up, none of that is normal. The sooner you can get ahead of these things the better," says Dr. Owen.

Not only will he be home for the holidays and no longer in the hospital, but the couple is also celebrating a special day. 

"We've been married 39 years. Saturday is our anniversary," he says.   

"I feel very blessed to have met him. When I met him in the ER, he was sitting straight up because he could barely breathe. He just had so much fluid build up from congestive heart failure. He had multiple blockages in very critical parts of the heart. I just hope his story will help encourage others to get the help they need. Listen to your body. Don’t tell yourself you are out of breath or slowing down or having chest pains or any of these things, don’t start writing it off as I’m just getting older," says Dr. Owen.

Mr. Dellacroce says he had been seeing a doctor six hours away where they live, and he had no idea his heart was as weak as it was until they came for a second opinion in Houston. They say they are grateful they did and just before heading home he had one more thing to tell us with a smile.  

"Ho, ho, ho Merry Christmas"!