A long, dark tunnel in MSK’s basement has come alive with flickering Christmas lights, fluffy cotton balls, and paper snowflakes. Each year around Christmastime, carpenters, toolmakers, and other members of MSK’s Facilities Management team construct a “Winter Wonderland” in the basement of Memorial Hospital for patients, their families, and staff to visit and enjoy. At the far end, a sign marked “locksmith” hangs above a door covered in red and green wrapping paper. Inside, you’ll find a trove of gold and silver keys, locks, tools, and cylinders — along with a Santa costume stuffed into an IKEA bag under a desk.
“That’s my third Santa suit,” says Vincent Fortunato, a locksmith at MSK. “Anytime that white gets yellow, I get a new one.”
Mr. Fortunato, known to staff as Vinny, came to MSK as a locksmith in 2002. Every morning, he commutes two and a half hours from Poughkeepsie, New York, to Grand Central Station and walks up to Memorial Hospital at 1275 York Avenue. His workday begins at , making keys, fixing and rebuilding locks, and picking office locks for staff who forget their keys at home. “That happens two to three times a week!” he says.
30 Years of Playing Santa
Despite all the joy he finds in his work, it’s the holiday season at MSK that really gets Vinny excited. A few days before Christmas, he dons his Santa Claus costume — white beard and all — and visits patients of all ages throughout Memorial Hospital. He ends the tour in the holiday hallway, where he sits in a handmade red-and-green chair and waits for patients and staff to visit and tell him what they want for Christmas.
“It makes you feel good to give back,” he says.
Vinny first put on the Santa suit about 30 years ago, when his niece Melissa was born. Playing Santa Claus became a family tradition. Not long after, he began dressing as Santa at a hospital in the Bronx, where he worked at the time. In 2002, he was hired as MSK’s new locksmith.
One day soon after, Vinny went up to MSK’s Patient Recreation Center on the 15th floor and asked staff if the hospital needed a Santa Claus. “They were ecstatic,” he says. “I told them I had my own supplies, my own costume, everything. And I’ve been playing him ever since.”
“Family Is Everything”
As Santa, Vinny is often accompanied by a team of carolers and is sometimes joined by his son, Michael, and his wife, Suzanne, a former MSK patient. In 2015, Suzanne was diagnosed with stage I uterine (endometrial) cancer and came to MSK for treatment. She underwent a complete hysterectomy on a Friday morning with Nadeem Abu-Rustum, Chief of the Gynecology Service, and was able to walk around by that evening and be discharged the following Monday.
“The staff treated me wonderfully,” says Suzanne, adding that her brief stay at MSK felt like a hotel. “It was the first hospital I went to where you got to call up your meals and someone brought it up to you fresh.” She recalls eating the “best chicken sandwich ever” from MSK’s cafeteria three days in a row.
Of her husband, whom she married when she was 20, she says he’s the most compassionate man she’s ever known and a true family man. She says that she and Vinny live by three words that are written on a sign hanging in their home: “Family is everything.”
“Vinny has always had a great passion to play Santa and loves helping others,” Suzanne says. “He’s always willing to help out in his community in every way possible.”
It wasn’t until three years ago that Suzanne decided to join Vinny during his MSK Santa tour. “She’s just amazed by it,” Vinny says. “She doesn’t want to wear a full costume, but I’m working on that!”
Working at MSK and seeing the outpouring of positivity from staff and patients helps him continue his yearly Santa tradition.
“Everybody’s always walking around here with a smile,” he says. “And the people I work with, too. We joke around like a family.”
Spreading Joy to Young and Old
Both pediatric and adult patients eagerly await Vinny’s visits during the holiday. He recalls one heartwarming encounter he had a few years ago, after he and some carolers were met by an elderly woman at the elevators in Memorial Hospital.
“I was ringing my bell and a little old lady — I’ll never forget her — said, ‘Santa, I was good this year! I’m going back to my room and I’ll wait for you!’ She ran back down the hallway and she was waiting outside her room. That was priceless.”