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Jewish Journal

David Copperfield makes patients’ cares vanish

by Robert David Jaffee

February 8, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Hospital administrator, Richard Jennings, left, is taught a rope trick by magician David Copperfield during his visit to Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center to celebrate 25 years of Project Magic. Photo by Gus Ruelas/Reuters

Hospital administrator, Richard Jennings, left, is taught a rope trick by magician David Copperfield during his visit to Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center to celebrate 25 years of Project Magic. Photo by Gus Ruelas/Reuters

Trails of balloons lead down the hallway to the buffet at the Centinela Freeman Health System, formerly known as Daniel Freeman Hospital, where attendees -- nurses, occupational therapists, patients and the occasional nun -- nosh on skewered meat, cheese and fish, before heading into the main room to await David Copperfield's mini-magic workshop as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of Project Magic.

The nuns are not such a surprise, since Daniel Freeman retains vestiges of its past as a Catholic entity. Nor will they be a surprise to Copperfield, né David Seth Kotkin, a bar mitzvah boy from New Jersey who attended Fordham University, a Catholic school in New York.

What may be a surprise is that Copperfield is making an appearance here at all, in this nondescript room painted institutional white in a not-so-well-known hospital in Inglewood. After all, Copperfield is a larger-than-life figure who picks iconic landmarks around the globe for many of his stunts.

Even if he has not parted the Red Sea, Copperfield has walked through the Great Wall of China, levitated over the Grand Canyon and caused the Statue of Liberty to vanish, to say nothing of presiding over an immaculate conception on stage.

Yet Copperfield also takes pride in Project Magic, which developed a quarter-century ago, when a magician contacted Copperfield, asking to be put on the "Tonight Show." Only later did Copperfield find out that this man was wheelchair-bound. He then came up with the idea of merging magic with therapy.

The result is a program that is used in more than 1,000 hospitals worldwide, in which occupational therapists aided by magicians teach patients, often victims of strokes, car accidents or brain injuries, not only how to regain usage of their motor skills but also how to master magic tricks that an "able-bodied person can't do," said Copperfield, who turned 50 last year and still sports a head of black hair that matches his black T-shirt and open black silk shirt.

He points out that while the program benefits patients physically by improving their dexterity, it also improves their cognitive skills as well. For instance, Project Magic teaches mathematical and memory skills to blind patients.

Through Project Magic, Copperfield has changed the outlook and brought out the talent of patients who feel disempowered and, in some cases, stigmatized. He notes that when family members tell these patients that they look well, the compliments are not always sincere. However, when a patient performs a magic trick, the act elicits what Copperfield calls "a genuine response," a true display of wonder from family members.

That is the reason why Copperfield got into magic in the first place -- to engender little fillips of awe in the audience. He tells a story about how he performed a basic trick in front of then-President Ronald Reagan that "disarmed" the commander-in-chief.

At Copperfield's prompting, today's attendees disinter rubber bands, rope and pencils from goody bags, as the magician explains a few tricks, such as flipping a rubber band from the index and middle finger to the other two fingers, and holding a rope at its ends, doing a series of maneuvers through loops and creating a knot.

Squeals of delight fill the room as many of the audience members succeed in these tricks on the first, second or third time.

Not unlike his eponymous literary progenitor, who was born "privileged to see ghosts and spirits," Copperfield through Project Magic has spiritually and physically enriched multitudes of patients across the globe over the past 25 years. He has enabled them to break out of the poverty of the imagination, if not debtor's prison, and to enter the world of dreams.

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