There's Something about Magic

February 11, 2011
Steven Zuckerman, MD

MD Magazine®, Volume 1 Issue 3, Volume 1, Issue 3

My life as medicine man and magician

It is certainly easy for the practice of medicine to become all-encompassing and all-consuming to the detriment of other areas of interest in your life. While this degree of dedication is certainly laudable, it is not necessarily conducive to your own well being. If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a hobby, then you may be provided with a ready escape from the environment of the medical community. If your hobby happens to be the performance of magic, then you get to be transported well beyond the sometimes depressing reality of our medical interactions into a world limited only by your imagination.

I was introduced to the magic realm by my very own dad. He was a salesman and had learned some basic tricks as a means to increase sales. He sold mostly toys and would find doors open to him because he could amuse the accounts with some simple tricks. When I broke my leg at the age of 14 and was bedridden for several months, I took the opportunity to learn those tricks that were in the house. I was then introduced to the local magic club, which helped expand my repertoire. Around that time, I was also fortunate to visit Los Angeles and the famous Magic Castle I remember intoning “open sesame” to enter this hallowed place to see such luminaries as Dai Vernon (The Professor) and the sponge ball king, Al Goshman. Most boys around the age of 15 are socially awkward and may need a way (such as through the practice of magic) to bolster their confidence. I was no exception.

I am fairly competitive and wanted to surpass the magic skills of my father. When I was an undergrad in college, we took another trip to LA, which of course included a visit to “The Castle.” It was during this trip that I was able to live out one of my fantasies. One of the performers at a “close-up room” had run out of tricks to perform (“close up” magic is a more intimate form of magic practiced in close proximity to the audience and performed using sleight of hand). His set had about 15 minutes remaining. He invited any magicians in the audience to perform, and I jumped at the opportunity. In reality, there were about five other tourists in attendance, but for me to perform at the Magic Castle in front of my very proud father was a moment I will not forget.

Unfortunately, the rigors of medical school and residency training did not permit much dabbling in the art of prestidigitation. However, during my pediatric neurology rotation of my neurology residency, I saw an opportunity to dust off the old tricks. In fact, I worked on developing a means of performing a neurology exam on kids using magic tricks. I selected tricks that prompted specific eye movements as well as coordination and muscle skills. Thus, the concept of integrating the performance of magic with the practice of medicine was introduced and has stayed with me these past 25 years.

More importantly, my involvement with the magic community has allowed me to be exposed to an entirely different way of thinking than I regularly encounter in the insular medical community. My wife and I moved to Baton Rouge, LA, in 1986 when I began practicing neurology. We were complete strangers to the area, so I joined the local magic club as a means to establish myself. Before I knew it, they made me president of the club, in hopes that I would organize the next magic convention. This was somewhat challenging as I had never attended a magic convention and had very little idea as to what was expected. But, I pushed ahead and ended up learning a great deal about organization and management in arranging this event. We had several highly talented and entertaining magicians perform, lecture, and sell their wares; we produced a successful magic show for the public, and a good time was had by all.

I have subsequently attended (and organized) numerous magic conventions all over the US. These conventions are a great opportunity for us amateurs to learn new magic tricks and attend lectures and seminars given by professional magicians. The greatest enjoyment, however, comes from socializing and networking with other magicians. They come from all walks of life but share a passion for the “magical arts” that is truly inspiring. Whenever I have gotten somewhat burnt out in the everyday practice of medicine, I have always recharged my batteries by attending a magic convention. Invariably, when I came home with my pockets full of new gadgets, I would be totally enthused and energized to return to my patients. I consider myself fortunate to have learned some simple skills that provide people with such obvious pleasure. Kids young and old respond to seeing something that is “impossible;” magic tricks create a sense of wonderment and a simple joy that is fun to experience. My most rewarding show came after Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of New Orleans residents to move to a makeshift shelter set up at the Convention Center of Baton Rouge. Many displaced children were there as the authorities tried to organize their schooling. I performed a show for this group and am happy to say that my efforts provided a little fun and happiness during a very dark time for these individuals.

When my own kids were younger, I would often be invited to perform my tricks at their school, which gave me a notoriety that I still enjoy today. Of course, they would see how many of the effects were performed but usually did not reveal any secrets. However, at one large magic show we attended, the performer was levitating and animating his walking cane. My son, around five years old at the time, got very excited and loudly blurted out, “Hey dad, you have that trick. You know: the one with the string and the stick!” Throughout the rest of the show, nearby audience members asked him if his father also had that trick.

The highlight of my involvement with magic occurred in 2001 when George W. Bush was elected president, but the “hanging chad” debacle delayed the determination of the winner of the election. By the time it was all sorted out, there was less time than usual to arrange for the inaugural festivities. A magician friend of mine was contacted by the White House transition team to arrange for a bunch of magicians to stroll around at the inaugural dinners that were being planned. He invited 25 of the country’s top magicians and also invited me. What an incredible experience, hanging out with this group of luminaries in the magic field and entertaining the rich and famous in Washington. During the festivities, I performed a trick in which I jabbed a pen through a dollar bill, but then had to explain that that action is technically illegal because “it defaces American currency.” I received some unexpected laughter at one table after delivering that line. It was later explained to me that I was performing the trick for Paul O’Neill, the newly appointed Treasury Secretary, and it must have struck them as amusing. After the dinner was over and President Bush came to give a short speech, all of the invited guests were seated, and only the hired entertainment was left standing. I figured I should get as close to the President as I could, seeing that I would probably never be in a similar situation again. As I was walking from the back of the room to the front, several things occurred to me: I was the only person in the room who was moving; I was walking toward the newly elected President; and there were probably several red dots trained upon me at that very moment. I settled for the back of the room.

Through my involvement with magic I still have the opportunity to access worlds into which I would never be allowed entry as a mere physician. Louisiana has been one of the states attempting to attract Hollywood dollars by giving tax breaks to the film industry. Patrick Dempsy (“McDreamy” of Grey’s Anatomy) is producing and starring in a film being made in Baton Rouge. He had the idea of using some sleight-of-hand techniques in the film for his character. The local film crew knew of me and invited me to come teach Dempsey some magic tricks. I closed down my clinic for the day to go on the set (with all of my staff begging to come along). The director greeted me with his feet up on the desk and nonchalantly said, “So, what do you got?” Talk about life imitating art imitating life… Here was a real neurologist coming to teach a fake neurosurgeon about being a magician to create a “real illusion.” The effect they wanted to portray could easily have been accomplished by special effects, but they insisted on learning actual magic technique methods. I borrowed Dempsey’s driver’s license to demonstrate how to accomplish a vanish-and-reappearance of an object (and I now regret giving it back to him).

There is a natural connection between performing magic and practicing medicine. Patients are understandably anxious about seeing a physician, especially when they are told they need to see a neurologist about some potentially serious condition. Being able to perform some simple magical effect can relax the patient and make the encounter much less formal. This can go a long way toward creating a therapeutic relationship with the patient.

Steven Zuckerman, MD, is a general neurologist, a clinical instructor at Tulane Medical School, and an active participant on the AAN Practice Management and Technology Committee. He is also physician editor-in-chief of MDNG: Neurology/Psychiatry Edition.