A therapeutic program gives kids the tools (and the magic wands) to help lessen fear and discomfort while in the hospital.
Using simple sleight of hand magic, Nader Salah would like to make the illnesses of his young audience members disappear.
Even if that's not possible, he can, for a moment, help shift their focus.
As one member of a team visiting patients weekly at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, the magician — who supplies card tricks, those seemingly endless silk scarves and the chance to wave a magic wand — provides a special diversion for patients.
It's an active, personal exchange.
"You're not doing a magic show for a group of kids; you're actually teaching them magic tricks one-on-one," says Salah, a volunteer with Open Heart Magic — a Chicago-based nonprofit founded in 2003 to help hospitalized kids find empowerment and confidence through magic.
"This is a proven hospital program built from the ground up with hospital staff to help kids be the strongest they can be to tackle their illnesses."
In addition to serving 10 facilities in the Chicagoland area, the group expanded in 2016 to include Mott and the Cleveland Clinic.
Salah, 37, a human resources consultant who began working with Open Heart Magic a decade ago while living in Chicago, has seen the not-for-profit organization grow into a three-state network of 130 bedside magicians who have transformed the hospital experience for more than 10,000 children.
Expressions of delight or disbelief often follow after a youngster helps master an illusion.
"They forget about why they're in the hospital," he says.
Like most other folks on the team — a pool that spans diverse backgrounds and ages — Salah isn't a professional magician. All participants undergo a rigorous screening process and intensive 12-week training program (and, for those at Mott, the standard orientation for volunteers of all stripes).
Making magic happen
Work and family brought Salah, a Michigan native, back home two years ago.
It didn't take long for him to pitch the idea of establishing an Open Heart Magic chapter in Ann Arbor — and for Mott to get on board.
"It was something completely different," says Kevin Smith, a Mott community relations specialist who works with the hospital's Child and Family Life team. "We're always trying to find something fun to have children enjoy their time in the hospital as much as possible, as hard as that may be."
And, where the sight of a visitor with a different purpose is a welcome one.
"You want them to know you're not a doctor; you're not going to poke or prod them," says Salah, himself a father of two young children.
Still, making magic requires planning and accommodation.
Each Monday, Smith helps determine which rooms the magicians will visit based on availability and patient need. (Groups of three are booked together on biweekly rotations.)
Child life specialists often supply notes before a session — to give notice about a nonverbal youth, for example, or one without the ability to move his or her arms — so the Open Heart Magic volunteers better prepare a routine.
"That helps them know what they're going into," Smith says.
Magicians will don gowns, gloves or masks to follow procedure if a patient is in isolation. They also can supply bagged, brand-new magic items to avoid germs.
Very special assistants
Children's illnesses don't seem to dampen the "ta-da" moments.
Rather, the magicians can offer hospital patients much-needed feelings of control and confidence in the midst of feeling poorly, whether these happy emotions are brought on by making a round sponge ball magically split into two (or change color), or by commanding a magic wand.
Families appreciate it, too.
"The parents' responses are some of the best," Salah says. "They'll say: 'He hasn't laughed in a week' or 'She hasn't sat up like that in three days.'
"You're making a difference and that's very cool."
To date, about 450 patients at Mott have been seen by the Open Heart Magic magicians, a number that's about to grow. A new class of volunteers began training this fall and will start seeing patients in January.
This will allow the in-house visits to take place twice weekly and reach more children who might benefit from an early exposure to magic — such as a boy Smith recalls as hesitant to participate.
After working with a magician, the youngster was begging his parents for a magic kit of his own.
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