By Jamie Leary

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4) – Bill Lee, known best by his community in Idaho Springs as Santa Bill, celebrated his 72nd birthday this year with a burro run down through the Grand Canyon and back. He survived being run over by a truck 10 years ago and a major truck fire three years ago.

“He’s certainly really strong. He’s proved that in many ways mountain trail runner,” said his son, Brack Lee.

Bill “Santa Bill” Lee (credit: CBS)

Despite his physical strength, nothing is stronger than his love to connect with people through the essence of Santa. This year, the Idaho Springs icon hit a major roadblock – COVID-19.

“COVID got to him despite being vaccinated,” said Brack.

Santa Bill was fully vaccinated, and just days away from getting his booster when he came down with what he thought was a cold- instead he found himself in the hospital, where he has been now for a month.

Initially, he was still able to read letters to Santa which children sent him, but his condition deteriorated. For two weeks he was intubated, then he had a tracheostomy.

(credit: CBS)

“We were talking about how you can perform a tracheostomy, but still maintain Santa Claus’ full beard,” Brack said. “If he were to lose that he would lose his spirit and his will to fight his COVID battle.”

Doctors at Saint Anthony’s in Lakewood were able to save the beard. Santa Bill must have known because on Wednesday, he was able to breath without the assistance of a ventilator for about an hour. Major progress according to his son.

The focus now is to get Santa Bill home and back on his feet financially, so his son has started an online fundraising campaign to help.

(credit: Lee family)

“This is the second year in a row where COVID has affected Santa Claus. You know last year, because of pandemic protocols and his ability to interact with others was significantly diminished, and you know him getting the vaccine as soon as it was readily available was going to be his ticket to be able to interact with others and spread that holiday cheer on a personal level,” said Brack. “Being Santa Clause is… it’s his whole heart but it’s also his way of making a living and he makes the majority of his living during the holiday season.”

Brack is confident that his father can make it through COVID – he’s been through a lot.

“COVID doesn’t discriminate. You know? COVID can even impact Santa Claus,” said Brack. “My Christmas wish is that we can have a father-son conversation, that he’ll be able to talk by Christmas Day.”

Jamie Leary