Making magic in the pediatric ward - Tucson Local Media: Import

Making magic in the pediatric ward

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Posted: Saturday, August 27, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

August 17, 2005 - A jolly man with a magic wand and a metal case full of surprises bustles over to the hospital bed that 6-year-old Dakota Wood is momentarily calling home.

Standing just in front of the farm animal stickers on her window and the coloring book drawings on her wall, the man launches into a show that's meant just for her and the stuffed monkey hanging from her IV pole.

He stuffs a bright red scarf into his loosely clinched hand and adds a bit of woofle dust. Poof. The scarf is gone.

Dakota is weak, her small frame bolstered up in her University Medical Center room so she can reach her carton of Pediasure, but she flinches noticeably in astonishment.

Her grandmother, Shirley Wood, notes the flinch.

"I don't think she's ever seen any kind of magic," she says.

Jay Knapp is a volunteer magician for sick children in hospitals. The 76-year-old Sun City Vistoso resident who has cancer has given more than 3,000 shows since he picked up the trade six years ago. He's gotten some quizzical stares from doctors regarding the seemingly too-good-to-be-true words on his hospital volunteer badge: "Jay, magic."

In an environment where needles are frightening and a primary mode of transportation is a toy wagon trailed by an IV pole, Knapp's method is simple: Show a patient a rapid succession of impossible feats and the patient often will forget, at least for a moment, to be scared and hurting.

"If the child believes what I'm doing is more important, everything else takes a back seat and the pain stops," Knapp has said. "I didn't give him a shot. I'm not a doctor. But it stops."

Knapp knows how bad a hospital stay can be without distraction. When he was 5, back when hospitals didn't have brightly painted pediatric wards with cozy toy wagons, he was rushed to a hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

The last words he remembers hearing, as he lay kicking and screaming on a table, were, "someone hold his feet." He woke up, after the surgery, alone. People visited only to give him medicine and meals.

During a different hospital visit, a doctor distracted him by asking him to spell "banana." He never forgot that.

Knapp celebrates that doctor's resourcefulness by showing up at Tucson Medical Center at 8 a.m. on Fridays with his magic wand and tricks case and then heading over to University Medical Center in the afternoon.

For the children he finds there, and for children at birthday parties, a Shriners clinic and the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, too, he pulls out the best diversions he knows of.

There's the half dollar that turns to gold and there's the red ball that passes right through cups. There are torn pictures that get magically healed, and there's a fully filled-in coloring book that goes back to being uncolored and then goes completely blank.

That particular gem is one that Knapp chooses to show young Dakota on Aug. 12 as she watches him fixedly with her monkey. It's bound to go over well in a room that has children's artwork on the wall.

"Can you blow woofle dust?" Knapp asks, indicating that the child is supposed to blow on the book cover.

Dakota leans over her Play-Doh containers and Pediasure carton on the bed table and points a weak exhalation in the direction of the book.

That breath couldn't have contained much woofle dust, but when the man with the magic wand flips through the pages of the blowed-on book, the pages are blank.

"Look what happened," he says, as Dakota stares with wide eyes. "You blew away all the pictures."

Knapp understands why magic engages even the children who are scared and hurting in hospital rooms. After all, it has gripped him that tightly all the way back to elementary school.

Knapp scraped together pennies to come up with the admission cost for his first 5-cent magic show in his school auditorium. He didn't leave disappointed.

"I was absolutely floored by what I saw," he said later. "I thought, 'My God, if I could ever do that I would be so happy.'"

Knapp gaped when, at the end of the show, the magician took off his sports coat and revealed that he was just an ordinary man inside. The child half expected him to be green or blue or to spring up 10 feet high.

"I thought he was really from another planet," he recalled. "To do the things he did, he had to be."

Later, in Los Angeles, an adult Knapp enjoyed 20 years of performances at The Magic Castle, a magicians' hot spot where talented tricksters from around the world engaged in illusory arts.

Knapp's own turn at holding the wand arrived in retirement. Six years ago, he bought the tools of his trade and began training his hands to be the fastest in the Southwest. The next year, he responded to a plea for a volunteer magician to enhance Halloween festivities in a pediatric ward.

The work was draining, at first. His first audience was a child with one amputation at the knee and another at the ankle.

But he went back, and his tunnel vision of physical devastation and tubes gave way to an appreciation for the mesmerized glances and the laughs, even when he knew he might make a child laugh and see the child's name a few weeks later in the obituaries.

Sometimes, a child would demand repeatedly of a nurse, "What are you doing, now?" and Knapp would go to the side of the bed opposite the nurse and capture the child's attention with magic. Sometimes Knapp would have the pleasure of stopping a child's tears mid-cheek.

"I saw a change in the demeanor," he said, recalling those moments. "It changed. It changed for the best. No Novocain shots, nothing. And it changed fast."

Others took note, such as Mary Celeste Stone, a child life specialist at University Medical Center.

"I see children who are gloomy and in quite a bit of pain, before Jay comes in, who transform into happy children having fun," she said. "They've forgotten about the pain and the problem."

During a conversation on the phone, Knapp's psychotherapist son, who counsels frightened and grieving people at a Southern California hospital, gave his explanation for where the pain goes.

"He said, 'Dad, nobody can do two things at once,'" Knapp recalled. "What you see that appears to be two things at once is two things intermittently."

Knapp remembered a movie he'd seen in which a cowboy bit into a donkey's ear while he branded the animal. An onlooker asked what he was doing and he explained that he was hurting the donkey's ear to mask the pain of the hot iron.

Knapp enjoys masking pain, but he aspires for his magic to have effects that long outlast the moment. After all, that's how it's worked on him.

The man with the magic wand has been fighting prostate cancer for 10 years. He's spent his share of time in hospital rooms, but he hasn't spent much time feeling hopeless. He's been too distracted by performing magic.

"There's a dimension where your hope actually materializes," he said. "Things that can't be become. If you can see that, all things are possible."

At the bedside of sick Dakota and her monkey, the man with the magic wand flips through a coloring book that has no color.

Dakota's pupils follow those pages like compass magnets pulling toward the direction north.

Knapp catches her eyes and promises her that the same woofle dust that transformed that coloring book to a blank pad is inside her and can make her strong.

"If a bear walked up to you, right now, you'd beat him right up," Knapp says. "Do you believe that?"

Dakota shakes her head "no," but her eyes convey resolve.

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