Making Spirits Bright: Volunteer Santa Diver Brings Joy to Central Ohio

Santa goes everywhere – even underwater

Each December, you can find Paul Willette, DO, FACEP, happily, deeply entrenched in saltwater… in Columbus, Ohio.

Bringing smiles to thousands of children, Dr. Willette relishes his role as a volunteer Santa diver, a specially trained volunteer for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, feeding 70+ species of fish in the 100,000-gallon aquarium at Discovery Reef, an authentic representation of a coral reef from the Indian Ocean.

“I love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said the Boston native. “Marine biology was actually my first career choice– I thought I would become a professor. I even used to track humpback whales.”

A different path

Bouts of seasickness were a factor in curtailing the future physician’s plans. Also, particularly from growing up in Boston, Dr. Willette had a reverence for physicians. He had worked as an orderly for an emergency department throughout high school and into college.

“Halfway through college, I finally realized that maybe I was meant to become a physician. I thought these people were superhuman and I could never compete at that level, but many of them were taking the same courses as me, and I was doing extremely well in my studies,” he said.

With encouragement from supportive EM docs as well as his college professors, he charted a new course. After graduating with a degree in biology from Merrimack College, he attended medical school at Kansas City University of Medical and Biosciences, and completed his residency at Akron General, where USACS’ Executive Chair Dr. Dominic Bagnoli was his chief resident.

“My residency years were some of the best of my life,” said Dr. Willette. “I met so many great, great people – including Dr. Bagnoli and Dr. David Scott.”

New opportunities

Willette’s children, a son and daughter, have followed in his medical footsteps: his son is in his fourth year of medical school, and his daughter is a PA student at Ohio University.

A few years after residency, Dr. Willette and his growing family moved to Columbus – just a mile or so from the zoo. One day at the nurses station, some nurses were discussing volunteer opportunities at the Columbus Zoo, he decided to apply.

“I interviewed, and it was an extremely challenging course, but diving is something I love to do year-round,” he said. “In spite of the sharks, the warm, salty water is my therapy. I started scuba diving in 1977 and have always loved it.”

Come Spring, he’s looking forward to doing other volunteer work at the Zoo’s Manatee Coast habitat, and he says he’ll always steer clear of the polar bears in the North America region.

Passion for medicine

Dr. Willette brings the same passion to his job at Doctors Hospital each day.

“At the end of the day, I’m just tickled to do what I do,” he said. “I do my best to bring joy to my patients. And when you’re saving a life or resuscitating a patient – there’s nothing like it. Each day, no matter how difficult it is, it’s still the best job on earth.”

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