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Cancer Survivor Makes Magic with Patients

By Jemarion Jones

On the Front Page...

If laughter is the best medicine, Jeff Desind is doing his part to make sure children in the pediatric ward of the Clinical Center get their proper dose.


Card tricks, disappearing sponge balls and mysterious length-changing rope have enabled the charismatic 54-year-old to bring smiles to the faces of children undergoing treatment for cancer and other conditions.

Desind knows first-hand the importance of smiling and keeping a positive attitude during treatment. In 1994, he was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, an uncommon cancer of B lymphocytes in which the cancer cells appear to have hairlike projections when examined under a microscope.

Jeffrey Desind (c) works his magic on Clinical Center patients Andrew Scott (r), 18, and Walter Winston, 16, during the pediatric ward's recent crab feast.

Hairy cell leukemia makes up 2 percent of all leukemias. Although for most patients the disease is controlled with standard chemotherapy, up to 25 percent of patients with the disease become resistant to traditional treatment.

After chemotherapy and other traditional treatments failed, Desind was unsure of his next step. "When other treatments don't work, you ask, 'What do I do next?'" he said.

The next step turned out to be enrolling in an immunotoxin protocol at NIH. In June, Desind began taking an experimental immunotoxin called BL22. After three rounds of treatment, the leukemia now appears to be in remission.

"I don't want to jinx it, but my white blood cell and platelet counts are up," he said.

The use of immunotoxins, small antibodies linked to a toxin, is part of a promising experimental strategy to treat cancer by directly targeting and delivering deadly poisons to tumor cells. Because the antibody specifically binds to the cancer cells, normal cells are spared and there are fewer side effects such as bone marrow damage.

"The remarkable response of Jeffrey and several others like him proves that immunotoxin therapy can benefit some cancer patients for which there is no other type of treatment," said Dr. Robert J. Kreitman, chief of the clinical immunotherapy section and principal investigator for the BL22 protocol. "The next step is to make and test immunotoxins targeting other types of cancer."

Desind's brand of entertainment has become so popular that he's now getting magic show requests from individual patients.

Even though Desind is grateful that the immunotoxin therapy has so far succeeded where other treatments have failed, he does not give all the credit to modern medicine.

"The key is attitude," he said. "I was never worried" I'd rather be positive than negative. I wasn't going to let [leukemia] affect the way I lived my life."

For now, living his life involves making children smile as much as possible. When he is not working at a New York City investment firm, Desind, the amateur magician, takes his act to various pediatric patient events in the Clinical Center.

"He just brings instant smiles to the kids' faces," said Kristin Johnson, a recreational therapist in the Clinical Center's rehabilitation medicine group. "Magic can bring amazement and smiles when kids have had a hard day or they're not feeling well."

"Magic spans all ages," said Karen Bergeron, a research nurse who assists Kreitman and works with Desind. "His enthusiasm is passed on to the audience and it gets recycled back to him. He gets energized working with the kids."

At times, Desind's dedication to entertaining children has taken precedence over his own health. During a bout with pneumonia and tuberculosis, he still managed to perform for some of the pediatric ward patients.

He has become so popular that he's now getting magic show requests from individual patients. For now, Desind will take those requests and continue to make magic wherever he is needed.

"I like bringing a smile to a kid's face," he said. "I enjoy making people happy. There's nothing better."

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