When You Can't Just Do It: Motivation Magic

Elton Kelly's magical motivation for continued recovery.

When Elton Kelly of Bakersfield, California, had a stroke at age 71, he was retired from a 40-year career as a banker. To keep busy he was developing websites and doing magic shows. Then one night he tried to get up from his recliner, and “my left leg was like a log and my right arm was flailing all around,” he remembered. At the hospital he was asked if this was his first stroke, and he told them that not only was it his first, it would be his last. “They said that if you have one stroke you have to have more,” he recalled. “That scared the hell out of me.”

After three weeks of inpatient therapy, his left leg was coming back, but “my left arm was essentially useless,” he said. When he went home from the rehab hospital, he found himself unmotivated to do anything because he was so unsteady on his feet. “I sat in my recliner and regressed,” he said. “My legs became weak from not being active.”

While still in inpatient therapy, Kelly began trying to do magic tricks: “I would go to the kitchen during free time and try to shuffle cards, using my right hand to train my left hand,” he said. “I would put my good hand on my bad hand, and my bad hand would mirror what my good hand was doing.” Slowly he gained enough control of his left hand that he began doing magic tricks for the other patients while they were in the lunch line. “I was still in a wheelchair, but I was watching to see if they were laughing at the right spots and following my misdirection,” he said.

“When I saw that I could still entertain people, that’s when the light went on that there was hope for the future, even if I had to do it from a wheelchair. Entertaining people gave me a purpose.”

A month after his stroke he walked out of rehab with a cane, but his left hand still had a long way to go. He did his first post-stroke magic show at a school three months after leaving rehab.

Kelly has used his passion for magic to get through pain, fatigue and fear of falling. For weeks before every show he spends hours a day preparing, choosing tricks that used his left hand. He does his shows seated on a stool. “I always try to be on my stool when audiences get there,” he said. “Otherwise they wonder what they have gotten themselves into. I am not a pretty sight arriving for a magic show.”

Today audiences cannot tell that he ever had a problem with his left hand. “It’s all part of having found a way to do something that’s so meaningful to me that it gives me purpose,” he said. This purpose is what makes him willing to work hours a day on perfecting his show. He gives credit to his therapists for getting back the use of his leg, “but I take credit for getting back the use of my arm and hand,” he said. “I’m a great believer that without purpose, it’s all over.”


When Elton had his stroke, he weighed 310 lbs. and recognized how much more difficult that weight was going to make moving his body. He gradually started eating smaller portions. One way he did that was to find a small spoon to feed himself with, a practice he continues to this day. “As my appetite diminished, the weight gradually came off,” he said. Over a three year period he lost 140 lbs. “But at 170 I looked like I had some horrible disease, so I gradually got my weight up to 210,” he said. “If you’re not eating you don’t have energy, so you have to be careful of that.” Now he eats so lightly that when he goes out to eat, he brings home a container with enough food that he and his wife Anne can both have a meal the next day, “and yet I am totally satisfied. And if I want a sundae or something, I eat it, though I can’t eat the whole thing, and I don’t want that kind of thing very often.”

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When You Can't Just Do It

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