The urologist starts his exam with the line: “Pick a card! Any card!”
Or maybe he’ll present you with a set of interlocking rings and a challenge: “Separate them … any way you can.”
Dr. Neil Baum is a popular Uptown physician whose hocus pocus can’t be found in medical books.
“Let’s face it,” Baum says, as he uses sleight of hand and a deck of cards to mesmerize a medical supplies delivery man at his office. “Nobody wants to be here. But I’ve always held the belief that a visit to a doctor’s office doesn’t have to be a painful or boring thing that produces nothing but anxiety. A visit to the doctor can be fun. It should be.
“You can put people at ease and actually make them laugh without being a joke teller. I do it with every patient I have. I have a magic trick in each of my examination rooms. And I use a magic trick with every patient. So many times I’ll have a patient come in and they’ll say, ‘Now don’t forget, doc, you’ve got to do a magic trick for me before I leave’.”
The first sign that you’re not in your run-of-the-mill doctor’s office comes as you enter the reception area, sign in and turn to grab a seat. A lab coat hanging on the wall has a rabbit peeking out of one pocket and two carrots growing from another.
“That was my first lab coat in medical school,” Baum says. “My mother had it plexi-glassed and made into a sculpture. She gave it to me as a special present on my 50th birthday.”
Since medical school at Ohio State University, the 71-year-old Baum never lost his faith in the calming effects a bit of magic can have on a patient.
There are posters on every wall of Baum’s medical suite showing the doctor in a clown suit and red bulbous nose, and proclaiming him to be a member of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Another poster describes his “slick, showy, sleight of hand.”
In a third, he’s splaying a deck of cards with the title, “The Wiz.”
Baum is quick to correct the error in spelling. “Considering my magic and the business I’m in, I use the spelling ‘The Whiz.’”
Baum stops in front of the Barnum & Bailey poster, and you get the feeling that this one is very special.
“Everybody has a bucket list when they’re a kid,” he says. “Some kids want to be firemen, some want to be a policeman. I always wanted to join the circus, you know, be a clown. A friend of mine knew this, and he pulled out a Nieman Marcus catalog that listed a special gift: ‘Become a member of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.’
“He ordered that for me, and for a short time years ago, I was an actual member of the circus. I put on my baggy pants, red nose … the entire costume, and I was in the circus for a full set of shows at the Superdome.
“It was an honorary thing … I never considered giving up my practice to run away with the circus, but I added another thing to my bucket list,” he said.
The circus was a dalliance, and Baum went back to medicine and the magic that lies in making people laugh and wonder (often out loud), “How in the world did he do that?”
He keeps up with magic just as he does with the latest developments in urological science, meeting regularly with magician Jon Racherbaumer, the man he calls his mentor.
“He’s incredible,” Baum said. “In fact, he and I are going to write a book on magic.”
Baum walks the poster-lined hallway and opens the door to an examining room, where a sign on the ceiling reads, ‘Smile. You’re on candid camera.’
In another exam room, a patient has seemingly invested his entire being into trying to unhinge a triangle from inside a circle, a puzzle he calls “this thingamajiggy.” The guy is laughing so hard he drops the puzzle.
Medical assistant Jackie Aucoin, who has been with the doctor for 33 years, just shrugs her shoulders.
“I swear, I’ve seen some of these tricks so many times I can’t remember. But I still don’t know how he does them. I have no clue.
“All I know is that when a patient comes in for the first time, they may be a little apprehensive. But in no time at all, Dr. Baum will have them laughing.”
Take the two guys in the waiting room who are still cracking up over the lab coat on the wall — and the “March Madness Vasectomy Special.”
Patient No. 1: “I started to have this procedure six months ago, but I put it off ‘til now. Where else ya gonna get a vasectomy with these benefits?”
Patient No. 2: “Yeah! A Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, a pizza, a frozen gel pack and a bell to ring for whatever ya need while ya recuperate? And don’t forget the bell to ring in case you need something at home. All lagniappe. It all goes with the vasectomy.”
Patient No. 1: “And all this is done without a scalpel.”
Patient No. 2: “Without a scalpel? This is great! Who came up with this idea anyway?”
Meanwhile, the medicine, and the magic, go on.
In an exam room nearby, another man eyes up a long tube on an instruments table.
“Doc,” the guy asks. “What are you going to do with that tube?”
“I’m a magician,” Baum says. “I’m going to make it disappear.”