Arts in Medicine makes therapy magical for young patients

By Cary Estes

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Children perform magic tricks at UAB’s Alys Stephens Center, wrapping up a two-week Magic Camp with Arts in Medicine.

One by one, the children walked on stage, capes and wands at the ready, and showed off tricks that amused and amazed. It was a performance full of smiles—the culmination of a two-week Magic Camp at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center.

But real magic was at work there. In learning to perform illusions, the participants—all children with some form of physical limitation caused by cerebral palsy, hemiplegia, or another cognitive condition—took steps toward developmental improvement. The sheer fun and enjoyment also caused the burdens of their challenges to vanish into thin air for a few marvelous moments.

A Creative Approach to Healing

A gift from the Monday Morning Quarterback Club and donors William Mann and Sandra Zahradka Mann to UAB’s Institute for Arts in Medicine (AIM) set the magic in motion. AIM, a partnership between UAB Medicine and the Alys Stephens Center, promotes a healing environment through creativity. At UAB Hospital, AIM’s seven artists-in-residence—including painters, musicians, dance specialists, and storytellers—offer group workshops and individual bedside visits to patients,their families, and caregivers.

“We have so many wonderful physicians and nurses who work tirelessly to treat and cure illness. Our goal is to complement this work by addressing the needs of the mind, body, and spirit,” says AIM director Kimberly Kirklin. “The patient is a whole person with a lifetime of experiences. We use the arts to acknowledge that experience and create human connection.”

AIM, the UAB School of Medicine, Children’s of Alabama, and the UAB School of Health Professions Department of Occupational Therapy collaborated on the Magic Camp as a new approach to caring for children. For many of these patients, therapy sessions involve repetition of physical and mental tasks. Learning a trick requires a similar kind of practice. Combine the two, and—presto—you have a form of therapy that children can enjoy.

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Occupational therapy students learn to perform Spencer’s magic tricks, which can help build key skills in young patients.

“Kids are not always excited about doing therapy, but you can get them motivated about learning a magic trick,” says Drew Davis, M.D., director of the UAB Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine. “Many children who have developmental challenges have difficulty with multiple steps and sequencing and handling complex motor tasks. Those are things you have to do to learn a magic trick, and you have to practice them over and over.

“Children can perform these tasks in a way that makes it something of a show,” Davis says. “And since tricks can be simple or complex, they can be based on a person’s ability level.”

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Renowned illusionist Kevin Spencer teaches UAB occupational therapy students.

No Hocus Pocus

One of the artists AIM has brought to UAB is Kevin Spencer, a renowned illusionist and leader in the use of magic for physical and psychosocial rehabilitation. Some experts initially dismissed this concept as a bunch of hocus pocus, then changed their opinion after watching Spencer work.

“I was skeptical at first, but I was blown away by what he did,” says Gavin Jenkins, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Occupational Therapy. “The kids were mesmerized. They’re so engaged by the tricks that you can create therapy without them realizing it’s therapy. I went from skepticism to being an absolute fan.”

For several years, UAB has held an annual workshop where Spencer teaches his techniques to first-year OT students. That led to the creation of this year’s Magic Camp as part of a research study. The UAB OT students who led the magical training conducted various tests with the children before they started learning the tricks. The students then tested the young campers again after the final performance at the Alys Stephens Center.

“We’re looking at the data to see if the camp made a difference, but anecdotally I think it did,” Jenkins says. “We saw a tremendous increase in the kids’ social participation with each other and with the OT students.”

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Magic Camp participants show off their newfound skills
at the Alys Stephens Center.

“A Joyful Thing”

Seeing the impact of his and his wife’s gift in the smiles of the young magicians, William Mann calls the camp “phenomenal.”

“I found it interesting how they use the magic tricks as part of the therapy for the disabilities,” Mann says. “It provides a double reinforcement for the children. It’s a novel approach that they really seem to enjoy.”

Kirklin agrees. “Magic Camp was a joyful thing,” she says. “The children were a little nervous and uncertain at first, but within a few days they were jumping up to share their tricks with the group. Their confidence level increased, even when they had to work with their weaker hand or side.

“At the end, it wasn’t about their physical limitation,” Kirklin says. “It was all about them being on stage and performing just like a magician. That was wonderful to see.”

Learn more about supporting the Institute for Arts in Medicine:
Lili Anderson
Senior Director of Development
205.934.6196 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.