Magician Arlen Fuhrman will never forget the first time he went to Glendale Adventist Medical Center to perform. His audience was a small group of hospital patients with severe head injuries and other disabilities.
Fuhrman, a semi-professional magician, did his act with his usual level of showmanship, he recalled, but the patients did not respond.
He wanted to make himself disappear, he said, adding, "Boy, that first time I got zero feedback, I didn't know what to do. I was going to quit."
The encouragement of an occupational therapist at the hospital persuaded Fuhrman to return.
That was more than 2 1/2 years ago. Now Fuhrman, a Studio City resident, says he looks forward to the one hour a week he spends with patients at Glendale Adventist.
He is part of Project Magic, a large network of magicians who lend occupational therapists a sleight of hand in rehabilitating hospital patients with damaged cognitive and motor skills.
The voluntary program was begun in 1982 by well-known magician David Copperfield, who was inspired by the fan letters of a young, wheelchair-bound aspiring magician.
In connection with the project, Copperfield and staff members of Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, headquarters of the program, developed a manual with 26 "do-as-I-do" tricks.
About 500 hospitals worldwide use Project Magic, including nearby Las Encinas in Pasadena and Childrens Hospital in Hollywood, besides Glendale Adventist.
For Fuhrman, 29, a chemical engineer who works in a family-run business when he isn't performing magic, there was no abracadabra behind volunteering for the project.
"It sounded like something I wanted to do," he said. "I don't have a chance to deal with people much where I work. This gives me a way to utilize whatever skills I have in a worthwhile fashion."
Working as a Team
A compact, muscular man with a glib sense of humor, Fuhrman has been practicing magic about 16 years.
At Glendale Adventist, he is teamed with occupational therapist Cindy Dowdy. They work with people who have suffered head trauma, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, strokes and other physical and developmental disabilities.
The patients are taught to perform tricks that are not too difficult, yet help restore such damaged abilities as hand-eye coordination, sequential thinking and memorization. The two prefer not to use the tricks outlined in the Project Magic manual.
"They're too low-level," Dowdy said. "They're not very entertaining."
On one recent Monday afternoon, 23-year-old Daryn, who had suffered head injuries and a fractured pelvis in a November car accident, had Fuhrman and Dowdy all to herself. This was her second Project Magic session.
"My mind was blank for a long time," Daryn said, sitting in a wheelchair. Her wildly patterned blouse, black pants and purple high-topped sneakers were in sharp contrast with typical hospital garb.
Effects of Accident
Like many people with head injuries, Daryn, whose family asked that her last name not be published, has trouble remembering things. The accident also left her with a short attention span and a low frustration level, Dowdy said.
Although she could not remember Dowdy's first name 10 minutes after being told it, Daryn managed to recall most of the steps involved in two magic tricks she had learned the previous week.
In one trick she tied a knot in a rope with one hand, and in the other she suspended a rope from inside what appeared to be an empty vase.
A more advanced trick, however, left Daryn somewhat confused. Called the "Professor's Nightmare," the illusion makes three small rope pieces of different lengths appear to be the same length after a "mystic pass" of the magician's hand.
Aware of Daryn's rising frustration, Dowdy said, "That's enough for now." She gently put the ropes away. "There are a lot of steps in this. There's a lot to remember,." she said.
Those who endorse the program contend that learning tricks works like, well, magic in motivating patients who can't get excited about squeezing rubber balls or stacking cones and other more traditional rehabilitation techniques.
Patients Are Intrigued
"This is a novelty. It catches their attention," Dowdy said. "When they see something they can't immediately explain, they say, 'Now, that's interesting. I'd like to know how that's done. I'd like to learn how to do that.' "
Dowdy said that most of the Glendale Adventist patients who participate in the occupational therapy attend about four magic sessions during their stay.
She said few patients come back for more sessions once they are discharged, largely because few insurance companies are willing to pay for the therapist's magic sessions.
The group sessions are usually composed of three to four patients, Dowdy said. It gets "too wild" with more people, when they can't be given individual attention, she said.