A wire snakes from the EKG monitor, swoops past the rolling cart with the chocolate milk and orange wedges, up the bed, past the pink teddy bear and around Sarah's thumb.
Inside Room 504 at Rush Children's Hospital, the EKG monitor blips. Sarah's heart is beating normally, 88 times a minute."Hi, I'm Mike, the hospital magician. Would you like to see some close-up magic?"
Sure, Sarah says. She's 11, with sandy-blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
The heart monitor pulses--88, 88, 89.
Mike Walton hands her the four of hearts and asks her to hold the playing card between her palms. Walton is holding the jack of spades. Slowly, he waves his card in tiny circles--87.
Sarah turns over her card: the jack of spades. Walton is now holding her four of hearts.
"What the ...," Sarah says. "Holy cow!"
The heart monitor jumps--98. Instantaneously. Like magic.
Walton, 35, is not the kind to pull rabbits out of hats or saw assistants in half. He is a close-up magician, a one-man walking act starring only his two hands.
After most tricks, kids ask him, "How did you do that?"
But Walton never tells. The first rule of magic: Never reveal your secrets.
At the same time, there are questions Walton doesn't ask the children. Why are you in a hospital? Will you be all right?
Two kids he performed for died shortly after his visits. One girl's left arm was amputated at the shoulder just weeks after Walton showed her a card trick.
"I probably couldn't handle it week after week," he said. "My job is not to feel sorry for these kids. The focus is on the magic."
Walton left his futures market trading job two years ago to start his non-profit group, Open Heart Magic. He spends 50 hours a week performing, pitching to prospective sponsors and teaching the seven volunteer magicians who work children's hospitals throughout Chicago.
Walton saw more than 600 kids last year. He'd get his list of patients every week, perform for them, then leave.
Most kids are at the hospital for a week or two before checking out. Week after week, though, one name kept appearing on the list.
From the first time he met the 15-year-old in November, Walton knew he'd love performing for him. He digs that "Arthur laugh," and more important, Arthur hadn't figured out any of his secrets.
Arthur's favorite trick involved a deck of cards and a matchbox. Arthur would select a card, sign it and replace it in the deck. The cards were divided into three piles, and whichever pile he placed the matchbox on, the card would appear on top.
Then Arthur chose the middle pile. The top card was turned over ... and ... it was the wrong card. Walton searched through the deck in vain. It was nowhere to be found. He asked Arthur to peek inside the matchbox.
And there, folded up, was Arthur's signed card.
To Walton, Arthur was just another kid who stayed at the hospital longer than most. The way he saw it, the more time Arthur spent here, the more tricks Walton had to learn.
What was to be a short stay for Arthur became a few weeks, then a month, which turned into two. Christmas passed, then New Year's came, and there was Arthur on the 5th floor of the children's ward, and Walton, wondering how many more tricks he could possibly learn.
When Arthur was first hospitalized, he was more concerned with catching up on homework than being bothered by visitors. But for some reason, he was curious about magic.
In photographs taken for the hospital newsletter, Walton is perched over Arthur's bed, flicking and shuffling playing cards with Arthur, his mother, Tina, watching.
There's Arthur in the pictures--the boyish teen with the buzz-cut hair; the 10th grader at De La Salle Institute, an avid fan of basketball, Hugo Boss cologne and PlayStation 2; who when he could still eat solid foods enjoyed steak cut into strips and cooked well-done, in a soft corn tortilla with a squeeze of lime.
In the pictures, Arthur is laughing. It's a cross between a chuckle and a giggle--a chuggle, Walton calls it--a childlike laugh that belies Arthur's age. This was when Arthur was still on his feet, planting whoopee cushions and squirting water guns at nurses.
But his condition got worse. Walton heard Arthur was transferred from the general ward to the intermediate ward.
"I don't want to know," Walton said. "It doesn't matter."
When Walton couldn't think of any other tricks to show, he taught Arthur some instead.
For five minutes, there were no doctors adjusting tubes in Arthur's abdomen. It was just Walton taking Arthur to a place where there were no CT scans, no epidurals, no cameras down Arthur's esophagus.
When beginning magicians start out, they learn about an important principle, mastering the art of misdirection.
This is the second rule of magic: Divert attention from where you don't want them to look.
The hallways in the children's ward are bright with aquariums filled with tropical fish, children's artwork, video game consoles and the sounds of a toy playing Bach's Minuet in G.
The illusion eventually fades. Patients are reminded exactly where they are: One girl is wearing a bright pink T-shirt that reads, "Cancer Sucks."
By early February, there were more tubes and wires and machines attached to Arthur.
When Walton performed one morning, Arthur tried his best to crack a smile, but his eyes barely opened.
"He wasn't at a spot where he can see magic," Walton said afterward.
The next week, there were more doctors in the room. Walton knocked. Through the window, Arthur shook his head no.
Walton couldn't believe it. In three months of visits, Arthur had never refused to see him.
Walton broke his own rule and asked a hospital colleague about Arthur's condition.
The answers he got weren't answers at all--they were unsatisfying, unsettling, vague. Arthur's not feeling well. He's sedated and not on his feet.
The following week, Arthur's name was missing from his list of patients. When Walton was done performing for the others, he stopped by Arthur's room.
Arthur was not there. Over the weekend, he was transferred to the intensive care unit.
Walton arrived at Room 533 and found Arthur. Walton waved wildly at him through the glass partition.
Arthur shook his head, no.
"For someone who absolutely loves magic, that can't be good," Walton said walking away. "Maybe he's not doing well, or maybe he's too busy."
Walton was wearing his "What, me worry?" button.
But he was thinking, and thinking some more.
"When you don't see progress ... I'm not used to it."
Sometimes, Walton wondered if he'd ever have children of his own. He had discussed it with his wife, Sue, whom he met 10 years ago while they served in the Peace Corps in Estonia.
The two would go on long runs along Lake Shore Drive, when their minds were clearest.
If we choose to not have kids, there are a lot of experiences we're really going to miss out on, Sue told her husband.
Walton tried to put Arthur out of his mind. Other patients deserve equal attention.
In March, doctors decided Arthur needed surgery.
He had not been outside since his hospital stay had begun, four days before Halloween.
On that overcast Wednesday night, Arthur woke up screaming with pain in his abdomen and was taken to Rush University Medical Center.
Doctors diagnosed pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas produces enzymes that help digest fat, proteins and carbohydrates. In Arthur's body, the pancreatic fluid wasn't flowing to the right places--it's as if a meat tenderizer had taken to his organs. He could no longer eat.
Patients with pancreatitis generally recover quickly. But Arthur was suffering from lupus, an immune system disorder, so his pancreatitis had not subsided.
To mitigate the symptoms of lupus, Arthur was taking steroids. But because that causes bone density loss, Arthur had a compound stress fracture in his spine. He could not walk.
There were times when the setbacks made Tina Palos want to scream. Instead, she spent a lot of time praying, often at the hospital chapel on the first floor.
With the father out of the picture, Tina spent every free moment she could with her only child. After work and on weekends, they watched movies like "Miracle" and "Napoleon Dynamite." She was there every time doctors asked Arthur to rate his pain on a scale of one to 10.
On the morning of his surgery, Arthur handed his mother a cross hanging on a string of beads.
"You have to wear it," Arthur told his mom. "That's what Grandma said."
Arthur's eyes opened and shut as the anesthetic took effect. A nurse ran her hand across Arthur's hair and, her voice cracking, told him he's going to do great.
Walton was learning a new routine for Arthur, a trick pack of cards called the Svengali deck. It's the third rule of magic: never show the same trick twice.
Inside the family waiting room on the fifth floor, Walton rehearsed. Riffle the cards. Pick a card. Put it back in the middle. Make a magic gesture and produce the card on top of the deck.
When Walton went to the hospital the following week, Arthur wasn't on his list of patients. Walton walked past Room 533 and saw him sound asleep.
Arthur was sleeping again when Walton visited the next week. What's the point of devoting so much energy?
Two months had gone by since Walton last performed for Arthur. He had seen more than 50 kids during that time.
And then, one day in early April, there was a familiar name on the top of the list.
Arthur, 15--Room 510.
Arthur had moved out of the intensive care unit and into the intermediate ward.
"Hey check it out!" Walton said. "Arthur's here. He's down the good aisle."
Walton saw Arthur's nurse standing outside and started a conversation.
He didn't know if Arthur was in the mood for visitors. Maybe he'd forgotten about Walton.
"Sometimes he doesn't feel like seeing me," Walton said.
The nurse replied, "But he wants to."
Walton walked in, and there was Arthur watching TV.
"Congratulations on the move. I hear the food is much better here," Walton said. "You wanna see something?"
He pulled out the Svengali deck. Arthur picked a card--the ace of hearts--and he replaced it somewhere in the middle.
Walton gave the deck a shake, and the ace of hearts jumped to the top of the deck. Just to show the first time wasn't a fluke, he told Arthur to pick another card. Arthur picked ... the ace of hearts again.
Walton showed Arthur that all the cards were different. Arthur picked another card. Again ... the ace of hearts.
Walton leaned in close, like he was about to tell him something important. He thumbed through the deck to show every single card had now changed into the ace of hearts. Top card, middle cards, all aces of hearts.
Arthur's eyes grew large.
"Wanna learn how to do this?"
After he left Arthur's room, Walton sat in an empty hospital office and stared at the floor. For several minutes, he was deep in thought about the kids--about Arthur--and as he spoke, his voice broke.
"Kids shouldn't be thinking about disease and being stuck in hospitals. That's the way it should be, simply put. The only thing that keeps coming back ... he's got that chuggle back. That's the way it should be."
In late May, on the 210th day after Arthur awoke in the middle of the night screaming, he left Rush Children's Hospital for a clinic to rehabilitate his spine. As a going-away gift to the doctors and nurses he calls friends, he did what now comes naturally to him. Arthur put on an impromptu magic show.
In doing so, he drew on Walton's gift to him: When Walton revealed the secret of the Svengali deck, he brought Arthur into his inner circle.
That very moment, Walton saw his patient as more than just a name on a list. When Arthur nodded, marveling at the workings of the trick deck, the two became brothers in the fraternity of magicians. Instantaneously.
Almost like magic.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun