Vickroy: Hospital magicians enchant sick kids, turn frowns to smiles

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Editor’s Note: The following story was published in the SouthtownStar on March 2 of this year. It is being republished as part of Progress 2014, a salute to “Caring in our Communities.”

It is dinnertime on a Thursday at Advocate Children’s Hospital, and as the sun sets outside, the halls of the colorful Oak Lawn health care facility seem to get a little brighter.

The magicians have arrived.

Dressed in black coats, carrying their bag of supplies, Christine Gravel-Lippoldt and Ed Barry are all set to work their magic.

They don’t pull rabbits out of hats, they don’t saw doctors or nurses in half and they don’t swallow any swords. They do something even better: They make sick kids forget they’re sick, even if just for a little while.

“Hi, I’m Christine, a magician for Open Heart Magic. Can I show you some magic?” Gravel-Lippoldt said 9-year-old Ali Rababah, of Crestwood.

He nods, and Gravel-Lippoldt quickly learns from his mom that Ali is a big fan of magic, that he has a kit at home. He has the potential to be a tough customer, but, as it turns out, he fancies himself more of a colleague. Within seconds, the two are engaged in making the seemingly impossible happen.

A red sponge ball suddenly multiplies. A plastic ball disappears inside a blue vase. Then Gravel-Lippoldt pulls out a deck of cards.

“Oh, I know this trick,” Ali said before she could begin.

Everybody laughs. It turns out, Ali knows a different trick, but Gravel-Lippoldt is happy to add to his repertoire.

At the end of the session, she offers to pull the curtain back on a trick of his choosing, but first he must be sworn in.

“Promise you won’t make any bunnies disappear and you won’t make any frogs multiply and you won’t tell the doctors and nurses how to do magic?” she said.

“No,” he said, beaming.

“OK,” she said, laughing. “I’m going to let that go because you’re being a good magician today. But you still can’t tell the doctors and nurses, promise?”

“OK,” he said. She hands him a magic wand and then reveals the secret to the disappearing coin trick.

“It’s all about the kids, about giving them something to empower themselves when they’re in a situation where there is not much power,” said Gravel-Lippoldt, who lives in Homer Glen.

“We see kids in all shapes and sizes, with every imaginable illness,” she said. “We see a lot of frequent fliers.”

Gravel-Lippoldt, who runs a small branding/marketing firm, was looking for a volunteer opportunity six years ago when she learned about Open Heart Magic. With a teaching background, she knew she could handle being in the limelight. What she didn’t know was magic.

She surprised herself by breezing through the 12-week course and has been cheering up sick kids ever since.

Open Heart Magic, a nonprofit group that sends magicians into nine Chicago-area hospitals, was started by commodities trader Mike Walton in 2003 after he realized the effect magic could have on sick kids. The goal is to reach 10,000 kids by next year, Gravel-Lippoldt said.

The volunteers commit to a set schedule. They follow hospital protocol. They track which patients they’ve visited and which tricks they’ve performed to avoid repetition. Recently, the program was expanded to include kids in isolation — no small feat considering the tricks must be performed while wearing gowns, gloves and masks.

Gravel-Lippoldt also serves on the board of Open Heart Magic.

“These are a bunch of amazingly committed people determined to help kids through the moment they’re in,” she said.

Sometimes, those moments are short; other times, the kids’ illnesses are terminal.

Last year, after a 12-year-old patient died, Gravel-Lippoldt received a note from his mom thanking her for bringing some joy to her son during his last days.

“He died on a Tuesday — a day the magicians come in and do magic,” Gravel-Lippoldt said. “His mom wanted us to know she was thinking of us.”

Even if she didn’t get notes like that, Gravel-Lippoldt said, the weekly commitment would be well worth it.

On this day, Aleksander Tatum, 6, of Hobart Ind., is fascinated by the magic. When Gravel-Lippoldt whispers secret steps to him, he whispers back. And when she swears him in to the magic club, he promises to abide by the pledge.

Then she tells him to swirl his magic wand in the air, capturing all the colors in the room, and he complies without hesitation. And then, abracadabra, he changes a blank book into a collection of brightly colored pages.

“That was awesome,” his mom, Donna Tatum, said when Gravel-Lippoldt’s visit was over.

Dr. Douglas Koltun, medical director of Advocate Children’s Hospital’s pediatric rehabilitation program, said not only do patients there believe in magic, so does the staff.

“Children are hospitalized when health problems are so severe or so complex that they require the comprehensive evaluation and intensity of specialty care treatment which can only be managed by an inpatient stay,” he said.

“In these circumstances, kids are usually scared about what may be causing their illness, stressed by testing, lonely being away from family and anxious to go home,” he said. “Humor has been found to increase pain tolerance, temporarily reduce stress, improve the immune system and foster relaxation.”

The tricks the magicians teach the kids improve coordination and boost confidence, he said.

“These all help kids better cope with and participate in treatment,” Koltun said. “Treating the whole child in both body and spirit helps to produce the health care miracles we see daily.”

Barry, of Oak Lawn, works in management at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. Not only does performing magic enable him to tap the other side of his brain, it makes him feel good.

“It’s selfish, but this gives me such a good feeling when I walk out here,” he said.

As a parent of three kids, he said, he knows how helpless adults can feel when their child is sick.

“If you can do anything to help brighten that child’s day, that’s rewarding,” he said.

Barry asks Angelina Walsh, 11, what her favorite kind of magic trick is. She tells him card tricks, so he wows her with a series of disappearing and reappearing cards, including the mysterious Yin Yang illusion. Then he shows her how she can do the same with her friends and family.

Afterward, adults in the Oak Lawn girl’s hospital room applaud the performance.

They thank Barry and shake his hand.

Back in the hallway, Barry said, “How gratifying was that?”

To learn more about Open Heart Magic, visit The eighth annual Open Heart Magic Tricks Are for Kids Benefit will be from 6 to 9 p.m. April 11 at the IBEW Local 134 Union Hall, 600 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago. For information and tickets, visit