After rough ride, Jim Trubey is back in his Santa suit

Santa Claus, played by Jim Trubey, and Mrs. Claus, played by Jenny Matlock, meet with 6-year-old Hayes Grinnell at Station House on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 in LaFayette, Ga. Trubey is returning to Erlanger on Christmas morning as Santa to give back to the hospital that helped him, having had major surgery done at the hospital in 2014.
photo Santa Claus, played by Jim Trubey, poses for a picture at Station House on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 in LaFayette, Ga. Trubey is returning to Erlanger on Christmas morning as Santa to give back to the hospital that helped him, having had major surgery done at the hospital in 2014.

Jim Trubey isn't just an ordinary man - he's Santa. And he's been through a lot with his health in recent years, but he's not letting that get in his way of spreading Christmas cheer.

"When people see me out and about, they ask me, 'Do you play Santa?' I tell them, 'No. When I put my suit on, I am Santa,'" he said with a smile.

Trubey sports naturally white hair and a full, naturally white beard. He wears a red, long-sleeved shirt, blue jeans and glasses as he sips his coffee.

He was in the United States Coast Guard for 23 years, moving his family all around the country, from Alaska to Florida.

"If you told me when I was in the Coast Guard that I'd be wearing makeup and a red velvet suit, I'd have punched you," he said, laughing.

Being Santa has helped Trubey shed the "military tough guy" mentality, he said. It's softened him up.

It all started about 17 years ago. Trubey was reading a bedtime story to his granddaughter, and she looked at him and said, "Papa, you could be Santa."

"It just kind of clicked," he said.

Not long after that, he attended the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School to learn the tricks of the trade. And he's been doing it ever since.

But in late 2013, Trubey ended his Santa season not feeling very well. By January 2014, he was in so much pain he decided it was time to go to the hospital. Doctors sent him for an emergency CT scan and discovered a suspicious area on his right kidney.

Over the course of four days, doctors decided to do exploratory surgery to see what was on his kidney, but another doctor insisted they also check his digestive tract. That procedure led to the realization that his appendix had burst.

During those four days, Trubey was still in pain, and the added stress on his heart caused him to have a heart attack before he could have surgery to remove his appendix. Doctors had to operate on his appendix and then perform open-heart surgery before they could address the area on his kidney.

As all of this was happening, Chattanooga saw one of its most chaotic snow days, causing hospital staff to be stranded or unable to get to work to relieve those already there.

"You would expect them to complain and carry on, but I remember that they said, 'Well, we're not going home today. They're making beds for us to sleep while we aren't working to weather the storm,'" Trubey said. "They weren't going anywhere. Nobody was."

It made him feel very appreciative for what they did, he said.

After the heart surgery, Trubey needed several months of physical therapy and then had to have surgery to remove kidney stones before doctors could remove what they determined was cancer on his right kidney.

"People who have kidney cancer and kidney stones are at an extremely high risk for going on dialysis," Trubey's doctor, Amar Singh, a specialist in urologic oncology with Erlanger Health System, said. "He was a perfect candidate for kidney-sparing operation, but in order for us to do that, we also had to make him totally stone free."

In late July 2014, Trubey was finally ready to have surgery to cut the cancerous area from his right kidney.

"If you can do the operation where you can cut out the cancerous area and leave the remaining kidney in place, people do better long term," Singh said. "The chances of dialysis or other kidney- related problems are lower."

But it was still a scary time for Trubey. So much of those seven months are a blur for him, he said. He was in a great deal of pain and had to have a lot of medication.

"Somewhere in this mess, I feel as if I had a conversation with myself at one time, and it was 'This could be it,'" he said. "It was scary, it really was."

When he finally asked Singh what his prospects were and found out he was in the clear, "it was pretty exciting," Trubey said.

He said Singh told him, "Where I come from, what you've got is a cure," meaning Singh was able to remove all of the cancer.

Now Trubey said he is "disgustingly healthy," though he still has to go back every so often for a checkup, with each visit being spaced out a bit more for up to about five years.

"The first time I met him, he looked like Santa Claus," Singh said. "He said, 'That's what I do for a living! I want you to get me back to doing what I do best, which is be Santa Claus.' It's so great to see him back in that role."

Trubey is still dedicated to being Santa, though he doesn't do full seasons anymore. This Christmas, he's going back to Erlanger to say thanks by showing up at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, his way of giving back to those who helped him.

"There wasn't much I could do for myself," he said. "There was a lot of care given to me by the staff. And the ice storm, spending 48 hours with the same group of people, really brings it home."

Having dealt with something as serious as a cancer diagnosis has changed the way he looks at things, he said.

"We're thankful for every day we have," his wife, Jill Trubey, said.

"Being able to go and say, 'Merry Christmas' to people who have to work on Christmas morning is really exciting for me," Jim Trubey said. "I'm going to be having a ball doing it!"

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfree or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.