Ronald “Griz” Winnert loves playing Santa Claus for the people of Hancock County, something he said he had been doing for the last three or so years. He often played St. Nick for Warran Automotive, the Waveland business where he once worked.
On Saturday, Winnert donned the red suit for the first time of the Christmas season as he rode high atop a float in the Bay St. Louis Christmas parade, something he had done many times before.
But this year was different for the Waveland resident, who was in a coma and fighting for his life only six months ago.
Winnert was fishing June 10 from a sea wall in Bay St. Louis near his home, something he had done many, many times before. On that summer day, Winnert, who is diabetic and therefore has a compromised immune system, splashed some water on his leg while catching a fish. A few hours later, he was almost dead from an infection brought on by vibrio.
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Vibrio is a bacteria that lives in coastal waters, including the warm saltwater of the Mississippi Sound. It can cause vibirosis in some people, especially those with compromised immune systems, making them extremely ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 100 people die from vibriosis annually.
Winnert spent 16 days in ICU and several months recovering. He also lost right leg and longtime Santa beard.
“When I was sick, they shaved off my beard and I had been growing it since I was 16,” he said. “I assumed that since the beard was gone, I wouldn’t be playing Santa this year.”
Winnert now has a prosthetic leg and although his beard is not as long and flowing as it was before his battle with vibriosis, it has grown back quickly. And that full white beard once again made him the perfect Santa candidate.
“I didn’t think I would do it this year, but they asked me to and I was glad to do it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to do it for the children.” ‘
He said he doesn’t know when he’d play Santa again, but he hopes to do it before Christmas.
“I play Santa for kids and at nursing homes — wherever I am needed,” he said. “ I hope they ask me to do it again because it gives me something to do and I enjoy it.”