Leukemia can't stop Santa from his rounds

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Richard Therrien is spending this holiday season dressed as Santa and making appearances at the Artists’ Exchange in Cranston, the Trudeau Center in Warwick, and private homes.

He’s spent the past year dealing with a cancer diagnosis given by doctors in March, but that hasn’t slowed down Therrien who says he’s blessed to be Santa.

“Now is the time to give more to the people who need,” he said in a break from festivities at Artists Exchange on Saturday.

Therrien first realized something was wrong in February when he had a blood test that showed his white blood cells were very low. It took about five weeks for doctors to finally realize what the problem was.

He was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of leukemia. So rare, in fact, that doctors believe only one other person in Rhode Island has it. The type of leukemia is actually unknown to doctors, making Therrien’s fight with it an especially difficult process.

To combat it, he was first given the Xarelto medication, a blood thinner. But Therrien said that the drug was more harmful than anything else.

“That really put me out. I was like a baby when I was on the medication. My wife would have to help me. Have you ever seen a mouse push an elephant up a hill?” he quipped about the help he needed from his wife of 61 years, Jane, when he was on this medication.

Because of the negative effects, doctors put him on Hydoxyurea, a drug used to treat leukemia. That pill was set at 1,500 milligrams per day, and that ended up being even worse for Therrien.

“That almost killed me,” he said. “That put me down to where I couldn’t even recognize my wife. I lost total concept of who I was, who I lived with, or where I lived.”

After realizing the horrible effects the drugs had on him, his wife got him into Miriam Hospital, which started giving him blood transplants to help his blood count of healthy white blood cells. The first dosage they gave him was two and a half pints of blood.

He said that the blood transplants have been the “salvation” for him in helping to recover.

“The extra fresh blood gave me the chance,” he said. “It’s been keeping me going.”

He’s been getting gallons of blood since, and six weeks ago he decided that he had enough of the medications, getting rid of all medications at this time. He’s stuck only to the blood transplants since, and his health has been improving because of it, he said.

The health improvements have come at just the right time, too, as Therrien has holiday duties to attend to this December. The 84 year old has been playing the role of Santa Claus since 1982, while he was still working for New England Telephone, which he retired from in 1989.

“I’ve been everywhere since then,” he said about playing Santa all around Rhode Island.

“Everywhere” includes the women’s resource center in Providence, which he went to for many years because he “can’t take it to see a man beat up a woman.” He also went to the Kent Regency Nursing Home from 2003 to 2008.

He has been going to the Trudeau Center since 2006 and will continue that this year, in addition to the Artists Exchange in Cranston, which he has been going to during their gingerbread house event since 2015.

In addition to these locations, Therrien makes a strong effort to make home visits for families who are on welfare. He’s worked with welfare groups in the cities of Cranston, Providence, and West Warwick to ask if anybody needed some holiday cheer. He found out which families had young children and made home visits dressed as Santa.

This year he’s toned it down, since he doesn’t know what his health will be like on a daily basis. He’s also wary of human contact, since colds can have an especially harmful effect on his health as he battles leukemia. He wears a small mask underneath his beard for breathing, he said.

But he’s made sure to get out there this year to his “old favorites” because of how important playing Santa is to him.

“It means the world to me,” he said. “It’s my holiday. I’m so happy to see children or adults smile and just say ‘thank you Santa’ or want a hug. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. When I leave I feel like I’m a real champ.”

He’s so popular at the Trudeau Center, he said, that he now needs four ‘bodyguards’ to protect him when he walks in.

“I go from 5 foot 9 to 6 foot 10. The minute I touch my chair they run to sit on the floor. They’re so happy to sit there and wait to have their name called. I give them all a gift because that’s what Santa Claus does. They’re just so thrilled.”

He’s doing his Santa duties this year with quite the weight on his shoulders, as doctors have told him that with leukemia you never know what’s going to happen; it could “take a jump and choke him at any time.”

He doesn’t have a prognosis right now. He’s just trying to make it through each day.

The Scituate resident of 46 years has lived a full life, he said, but to him there’s always more time to give back to others, which is why he’s continuing to make such an effort to get out there as Santa Claus this year.

“God has been good to me, and if I can give a little back to other people and make their lives more enriched then that means the world to me.”

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