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Making Magic for Hospitalized Kids

Volunteer magicians lift spirits by teaching children to do tricks themselves

Magicians usually don’t reveal their secrets. But for more than 16 years, magicians not only have been performing tricks for pediatric patients at Rush University Medical Center — they also have been teaching the children how to perform those tricks themselves.

The magicians are volunteers with Open Heart Magic, a program begun at the Medical Center in 2003 by local futures trader and amateur magician Mike Walton that since has grown to brighten the days and lift the spirits of children at 15 hospitals in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. In all, the magicians have entertained and taught more than 12,000 patients, according Walton, who now works full-time as Open Heart Magic’s executive director.

At Rush, magicians visit three times a week, seeing anywhere from two to 10 patients in Rush University Children’s Hospital. The magicians perform for the kids at their bedside, then teach them how to do the tricks on their own, adjusting for each child’s level of ability, medical condition and hospital setting (the magicians even visit children in isolation rooms).

When he first performed for children at the Medical Center, Walton quickly realized that magic was the perfect vehicle for engaging these young patients. “I watched as kids who were feeling sad and isolated rediscovered their sense of fun, laughter and wonder,” he says.

“The magic we do for kids is old school, close up bar magic that traditionally was for adults, but it allows for situations where the patient doesn’t speak English. More importantly, the magic itself doesn’t speak down to a child. It’s visual and interactive, which is why it works so well.”

Magic empowers ill children and helps them cope

Learning the tricks isn’t just a fun stress reliever for the children (although that aspect is important, too). It also helps them cope with being in the hospital and helps with their emotional and social development, explains Shira Miller, MS, CCLS, manager of Child Life and Creative Arts Therapies.

“They empower the kids to gain some control at a time when they don’t have much control,” Miller says. “They’re not only being wowed by the magic, they also get to step outside their medical experience and do a trick for the doctors or the nurses. It turns the tables on the people who have control over what’s happening to them and their treatment.

“Kids express themselves through play,” she continues. “We’re giving them opportunities to be kids, and through that they can build self-esteem, they can learn new coping skills, they can build relationships.”

Child Life Services coordinates the magicians’ visits, providing a list of children who are appropriate to visit given their medical circumstances. They also work with the magicians to help them adapt to especially complex patients.

“Mike will often ask us our department how to handle a situation, because he respects and values the approach we take and our understanding of children’s psychosocial dynamics,” Miller says.

Open Heart Magic now is a non-profit organization with a staff of six and 170 volunteers, who are trained to become hospital magicians in an intensive 12-week program Walton established that’s known as Magic University. 

“Open Heart Magic didn’t start as a program. It started as an idea,” Walton says. “I started testing different approaches at Rush. I started the learning curve there.

“Now it’s been 17 years. I think hospitals now wouldn’t be open to a type of idea like this for someone that’s brand new. I wonder if this idea would have even happened if I hadn’t approached Rush.”

‘When the magic happens, time seems to stand still’

Miller was the keynote speaker at Open Heart Magic’s third annual Casino Magicale Benefit, held at the Casino Club in Chicago on Nov. 9 and attended by other Rush University Children’s Hospital leaders. The following is an excerpt from her speech:

Tonight, think about being a 13-year-old diagnosed with a chronic, life changing disease. Your world, in an instant, is turned upside down as you learn that you will likely be living in the hospital for most of the year, as doctors and nurses try to figure out what is ravaging your teenage body.

I can remember a boy, stuck in his room, helpless, often hopeless, spending hours with Mike learning trick after trick. I watched this teenager find himself in magic and come through some of his darkest times with the knowledge that the magician was coming that day.

The growth of this organization means more to children and families than can be put into words, because it allows something so unique to happen at the hands of a child. And for that one moment, when the magic happens, time seems to stand still. They’re no longer a child battling against symptoms, pain, fear. Or a parent struggling with the unknown, being away from work and other kids at home. They’re not a nurse or a doctor trying to complete medical exams, give medications or find answers. They’re all people, captivated and removed from the stressors.

Magic is awesome. It’s unique and puzzling and captivating and just the right balance of novel and thought that kids need when they’re in the hospital. It gives kids a chance to be transported out of their room, their illness, and into a place where they gain strength — even just for a few seconds — in the face of adversity and over doctors and nurses and parents. And that is why Open Heart Magic matters. 

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