My Story of How a Pivotal Question Changed my Outlook
Before becoming a physician, I was a professional magician. For me, magic and illusions have been and always will be great forms of entertainment and amusement, especially in a large theatrical setting, bringing excitement and laughter whenever it’s performed. When I finally became a doctor, it seemed like a natural segue to performing magic for children, even in the clinical setting. It transformed a serious, cold and sterile clinical environment into a more hospitable and less threatening one. Let’s face it, being at a doctor’s office or hospital is not most people’s preferred place to visit. As I progressed in my journey from medical student to full-fledged physician, I experienced something very unexpected, inspiring and life-altering. But to understand where I ended up, I need to take you back to the early stages of my medical training. Here is part of my story.
When I was an apprehensive, third-year medical student, I was following a pediatrician in my clinical rotation. We were about to see a patient together when he stopped and said to me, “You’d better not come in with me to see this little girl. She’s seven years old and extremely shy. It’s taken me three years to develop some level of trust with her. She’s finally not afraid of me, and she has finally allowed me to examine her without screaming and crying.”
Like an obedient student, I merely sighed and replied, “Okay, I’ll wait outside the exam room.” He took a pitying look at me and said, “Okay, come in, but be quiet, stand in the corner on the opposite side of the room and try to be invisible.” He didn’t realize I was a magician, or that being invisible (or vanishing) had an entirely different connotation for me.
While we were in the exam room, the pediatrician realized he’d forgotten something and excused himself for a brief moment. I stood there, the little girl looking at me, her parents looking at me, while I looked back at them. All the while I was trying to be invisible—not an easy task. The uncomfortable silence became more uncomfortable with each passing second. So I did what any magician would do in moments like these, and said to the little girl, “Do you want to see some magic?” And with those words I made a coin appear, disappear and reappear. The girl laughed and walked over to me and touched the coin in my hand and said, “Do that again.” So I did. This was followed by laughter and questions. “How did you do that? Can you make that pen disappear?”
The pediatrician walked back in and saw the little girl talking with me, and it was his turn to be amazed. He stood there, eyes bulging, jaw wide open, like a person hypnotized. He absolutely couldn’t believe his patient was talking to me, let alone laughing with me. He finally snapped from his hypnotic trance, regained his composure and completed his clinical assessment. When the little girl left, she waved to me and said, “Bye, magic doctor.”
Now the tables had turned, and the pediatrician came to me for tutelage. “It took me years to build a rapport with that little girl, and you did it in seconds! Will you teach me a couple of magic tricks?” So I did. Needless to say, I received an outstanding evaluation at the end of the rotation. Who knew being a magician could inflate your grades?
Years passed, and more doctors and nurses asked if I would teach them magic. They, too, wanted to make children feel more comfortable and less intimidated in a clinical setting. After all, as health care providers, we want to help patients have a positive experience. We want to restore our patients to their normal lives so they can flourish.
Children feel happy when they see a magic trick and so do adults. It brings them to a state of wonder, a place of excitement. That’s why stories, music, movies, and sports exist. These things give life added vitality. Medicine keeps us alive while magic and the arts allow us to thrive.
In the end, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals can use this skill of magic to make children feel comfortable as they poke, prod, stitch them up or give an immunization. Instead of being traumatized, children can leave with a positive experience and a happy memory.
What Changed for Me
One day, a few years ago, I received a call from Children’s Aid Services asking me to examine two brothers, aged three and six. There was a strong suspicion of sexual abuse perpetrated by their male teen babysitter (which was later confirmed). The boys refused to see any healthcare worker, whether it be a doctor, nurse or social worker. I told Children’s Aid I would see them immediately.
While it was my first time seeing the boys, I’d met the mother twice. She was a single parent and a sincere individual. She’d come from a fractured childhood and an abusive environment. She was working hard to create a new, positive life for her two boys. She’d moved hundreds of miles away from her “so-called family,” as she often called them. The next day, anxious and distraught, she brought in her three-year-old son. She told me her eldest refused to see me or anyone at all. He just wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, not even her. He had become quiet and was keeping to himself.
Normally, I do at least one trick for the children, but for this encounter, I did a few. As usual, the three-year-old smiled and laughed, and we began developing a connection. He allowed me to examine him and fortunately there appeared to be nothing physically wrong with him. However, assessing psychological damage is difficult through a medical exam. I suggested to the mother that I would show her eldest son some magic and asked her to bring him in; I would make room in my schedule to see him anytime. She called me back after two days, apologizing that she hadn’t called earlier, and told me her son did not want to see me at all. However, after listening to his younger brother talk about the magic tricks he’d seen, the older boy changed his mind. His mother prefaced this by saying, “He just wants to see the magic tricks, and that’s it. He doesn’t want to talk to you or do anything else.” I replied, “That’s a start, I’d be happy to show him some magic,” and asked her to bring him in.
She did so, and I did several tricks for him. I could see the smile on his face and noticed his delight as he spoke to me. I saw that the beginning of trust starting to form. I asked him if he would let me examine him since his mother wanted to make sure he was healthy. He happily agreed and, fortunately, he showed no physical signs of abuse. He came several times after the initial visit and would only see me and no other healthcare provider. I realized that I was making an impact on both his life and his brother’s life. I was not just a doctor to them. The older boy had started to trust other people again. Eventually, I was able to connect him to other services and other professionals who have since aided in his healing process. Now both boys are leading healthy lives.
After having first seen them, and after every subsequent visit from them, I sat back in my chair and wondered, “How would I have ever connected with those little boys to help them if I hadn’t known magic?” I had no answer. Magic was the tool that helped build a rapport with them. Those children had their most basic trust violated. They may even have lost faith in their mother, who was supposed to be their protector. Through no fault of her own, her children had ended up in the hands of someone who’d seemed trustworthy but had turned out not to be.
Children grow up to be adults who may have children of their own. Consciously or unconsciously, they will impart their attitudes about seeking medical attention and seeing healthcare professionals onto their children. Healthcare professionals are people who everyone, sooner or later, will need to encounter, whether the encounter is welcomed or not.
Asking the pivotal question, “How could I have helped those boys if I didn’t know magic?” opened my eyes to how valuable magic is in helping healthcare professionals connect with their patients. Prior to this experience, I’d never truly appreciated or understood why people found my lessons on magic so valuable. I was too close to the situation to see what others were seeing. But more than ever, after helping those boys, I understood the value of using magic. I realized I could help more people by teaching healthcare professionals how to bridge the gap between them and their patients by using magic. Illusions can truly make the clinical encounter magical. It can help in the healing process. In that sense, the magic is the medicine.
My focus and energy changed when I asked that pivotal question. My Illusion of humility was a disservice. By not sharing what I’d learned as a “magic doctor,” I was not empowering other clinicians to create better connections. I now share this skill with others by giving workshops and lectures locally, nationally and internationally on “How to Use Magic in a Clinical Setting.” I see the positive impact it makes in creating greater joy not only with patients but also among physicians. The physician becomes a magician, who becomes a healer.
Through this experiential awakening, I learned that we all have gifts that we can share with others. Yet only through the act of asking questions could I gain greater clarity and meaning about what I was doing. As much as this story is rooted in a clinical setting, it is my story of personal transformation. Great key questions lead to key decisions, which dictate daily actions and behaviors, ultimately affecting your life’s trajectory.
Too often, we’re blind to our own influences and oblivious to our inherent gifts. We all share our gifts in many ways, whether by encouraging others, like the pediatrician did by wanting to learn from me, or by appreciating someone for an act of kindness, no matter how big or small.
I believe we all offer some sort of value, something to say, an inherent gift we aren’t always using to its full potential. Don’t be fooled by illusions of humility, fear or the thinking that your contributions aren’t significant or necessary. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of not seeing your inherent gifts and your ability to bring out those gifts in others. When we don’t share our gifts, it is a loss for ourselves and everyone else. Sharing our gifts in all the ways we know how, even in the little ways, is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and the greater world. These are the gifts that transform everyone’s lives forever and leave a footprint long after we’re gone.