By Kim Kowsky
Dr. Naeim is an oncologist by day, but in his spare moments, he's an illusionist who specializes in prestidigitation - close-up magic with cards, common objects and mentalism. "I like working with cards more than anything else because they are ubiquitous, and there are a lot of things you can do with cards that require minimal practice," says Dr. Naeim, director of UCLA's Geriatric Oncology Program, the Hematology-Oncology Fellowship Program and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center Informatics Program.
When Dr. Naeim was training at UCLA in the mid-'90s, a friend gave him a birthday gift of a class at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. "It was a good distraction from the hectic training of residency," Dr. Naeim says. "I took another class after that one, and I was hooked."
Several months and a few more classes later, Dr. Naeim was skilled enough to audition for membership in the Magic Castle - a "nerve-wracking ordeal" that required him to perform 15-to-20 minutes of close-up magic in the Castle's basement for a group of members. "Nerve-wracking is a relative term," he acknowledges. "What's the worst thing that could have happened? They would make me do it again? It's not like taking medical boards."
But he did excel, even mastering the Faro Shuffle, which involves flawlessly interlacing a full deck of cards that is split into two equal piles of 26. (After eight perfect shuffles, the cards land at their starting point.) Work and family obligations - he has two young sons, ages 6 and 9, and another child on the way - leave Dr. Naeim with less time for his hobby, which is why most of his tricks today require "easier-to-maintain technical skills."
A good-natured man with a magician's goatee and dexterous hands, Dr. Naeim says magic and medicine have more in common than might meet the eye. For instance, the strategies a magician uses to focus or misdirect an audience's attention for an effect are similar to those he might employ to focus a patient during a medical consultation.
"Managing a patient's expectations or sense of hope is not that different from managing an audience's expectations," Dr. Naeim says. "The connection you need to have with people doing an interactive hobby like magic is not that different from the connection you need to have in a room with a patient."
While some illusions require a high level of technical skill, the two ingredients that are essential to pulling off even the simplest effects are confidence and the ability to tell a good story, he says. "You have to be able to tell a linear, sequential story. You can't be disjointed if you want people to follow along. And you have to be confident to keep your audience focused on what you want them to focus on. Medicine and magic both require a focus on communication, empathy and delivering an explanation that is not filled with jargon and is something the lay person can understand."
The son of a pathologist and a social worker, Dr. Naeim was born in Iran and speaks broken Farsi with an American-English accent. His family moved to Boston when he was an infant and then to Los Angeles when he was a young child.
Over the years, he has collected a wealth of magic paraphernalia, including cups and balls and ropes and cards, which he keeps in a bedroom drawer that attracts the interest of his children and an occasional complaint from his wife. While his family loves a good magic trick, "the home audience is the toughest because they are harder to fool and very attuned to what to look for," Dr. Naeim says. He prefers trying out new magic on strangers.
His compact office at UCLA is filled with paperwork related to his research into cost-effectiveness and decision-making among older cancer patients and the use of electronic databases and medical records for outcomes-research and healthcare interventions. The only evidence of his interest in sleight of hand is an unopened pack of playing cards that sits as a permanent fixture atop an old poker table he found on Craigslist and now uses as a conference table.
While Dr. Naeim spends about a quarter of his time seeing patients, he doesn't reveal his passion for magic to most because he doesn't want to appear to be trivializing their illness. But, he says, there are moments when an appropriately placed trick can give patients a needed respite from their illness. He once performed card magic for an elderly patient with lung cancer who suffered nausea in anticipation of her chemotherapy. The distraction of the tricks helped to calm her and elicit some welcome levity.
"Now that you worked your magic to help me with my nausea," she told him, "let's see what you can do about my cancer."
Kim Kowsky is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.