LARGO — The Challenge Knot trick requires you to tie a knot without removing your hands from either end of the rope. With a little bit of magic and a lot of effort, Matthew Hanna mastered it.
It was not an easy task for the 17-year-old, who is recovering from a debilitating brain injury sustained when a bike he was riding was hit by a car. The rope slipped from his fingers during the first three attempts, but on the fourth, Hanna held up the knot for his friends to see. He grinned from ear-to-ear.
"I'm a magician now,'' he said.
On Jan. 20, Hanna was one of about 10 residents on hand for magician Kevin Spencer's visit to the Children's Center at Sabal Palms.
Spencer, who performs with his wife, Cindy, as Spencer's Theatre of Illusion, was in town to perform at the Largo Cultural Center. He stopped by the Children's Center, a long-term skilled nursing home for youth and young adults who are profoundly disabled, to present "Healing of Magic.'' The program is designed to incorporate magic tricks into physical and occupational therapy programs.
The kids witnessed what Spencer had up his sleeve as well as how to do a few classic tricks.
They also got duped into a therapy session.
"By teaching magic, I like to say that we are sneaking in therapy through the back door,'' Spencer said. "The act of doing magic helps patients work on their motor skills, helps with self-esteem, and even helps them relearn social skills, conversational skills, too.''
Although he cherishes his work performing with his wife on stage, Healing of Magic is the endeavor closest to his heart, he said.
In 1986, when Spencer was traveling to a show, his car was hit by a semitrailer truck.
"I woke up in neurological intensive care,'' he said.
He realized he couldn't walk.
"I was Matthew about 20 years ago,'' he said.
He endured a year of physical and occupational therapy. Gradually, with the help of the staff in the rehabilitation department of Virginia Baptist Hospital in Lynchburg, Va., he took steps with a walker. After nine months, he graduated to a cane.
"What I kept remembering about my rehabilitation as a long-term patient was how bored I was by the therapy,'' said Spencer, who holds a clinical psychology degree from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. "I understood it was necessary, but when I got better, I approached the therapists at the hospital to see if they'd help me put magic tricks into rehab.' ''
Dylan Mattimore, 9, lives at the Children's Center because of the medical care required for his muscular dystrophy, said Brenda Legge, pediatric nurse and manager at the Children's Center. At night, he sleeps attached to a ventilator to help with his breathing.
During the lesson, Dylan raced back and forth, urging the magician to continue coming up with tricks.
"Learning this magic is so awesome,'' he said.
The magician taught Dylan a trick called Linking Paper Clips.
It involves a dollar bill and two paper clips. After several minutes of working with the dollar bill, Dylan stretched the money apart. The paper clips magically linked together.
"In that trick, people are using both cognitive and perception skills,'' said Spencer. "But as important as that is just how big that guy was smiling. That's what this is all about.''
Leigh Bullen, the life enrichment director at Sabal Palms, was thrilled to see the excitement generated from the program. She believes the magic served as great sensory stimulation. "It can help open up their imagination,'' she said.
For Spencer, the accident more than 20 years ago pops up in his memory at a moment's notice. "What it means to be here, to be able to work with these kids, is indescribable,'' he said.
And for those who still have a long road ahead, what advice does he want to share?
"Never limit yourself. You never know what you're capable of.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.