Ace of Hearts

This World-Renowned Heart Surgeon Has a Few Tricks Up His Sleeve

Magic tricks, that is.

By Jeff Balke June 25, 2019 Published in the July 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dr. Randall Wolf is used to blowing people’s minds. The cardiac surgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital’s DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center is a pioneer in the minimally invasive treatment of atrial fibrillation called the Wolf Mini-Maze, in which the surgeon makes small marks on the heart while it is still beating. It’s a procedure that requires the steadiest of hands and has saved thousands of lives. Again, mind-blowing.

But in this moment, in his office, it’s another incredible feat that has an observer reeling in amazement. “Hold this in your hand,” Wolf says, placing a miniature Rubik’s cube in his visitor’s palm. The goateed, bespectacled surgeon muses about the toy's pretty colors for a distracting second, then slaps the cube. An explosion of colored M&Ms fills the astonished visitor’s hand. The cube is gone. “You can eat them,” he says with a grin. “They’re real.”

Wolf isn’t just a world-renowned heart doctor, he’s also a master magician. Raised on a farm in Indiana—just 10 miles from the headquarters for the United States Playing Card Company—he comes by his passions for medicine and magic honestly: Two of his uncles also performed both. Wolf found one of their bags of tricks in his father’s attic at around the age of 10. “He never sold himself as a magician,” he remembers. “He just got interested in it as a teenager and left this box of magic up in the attic. I was fascinated.”

As a tween in the 1960s, Wolf had to learn patience, acquiring new tricks slowly. “Back then you’d send away for a trick, and it would take six weeks to get it,” he remembers. “You’d check the mailbox every day.”

There are clear parallels between Wolf’s two pursuits. Both require precise hand-eye coordination, for one. “In magic I’ve got to be so good I can fool myself,” he says. “Surgery is no different.” Then there are the hours and hours of practice necessary to mastering the two disciplines. “Magic is very regimented,” Wolf explains. “Every step has to be memorized in order. If you make one mistake, you’re done.” He’ll spend at least six months practicing a new trick before performing it for an audience, something he does regularly at mostly private events.

While the surgeon isn’t shy, most of his colleagues at Methodist, where he started at the end of 2018 after a three-year stint at Memorial Hermann, are unaware of his hidden talent. After he was persuaded to do some tricks at a recent party, they were awestruck. “They had no idea,” he says, smiling. “It’s better if they don’t know.”

His fellow magicians, meanwhile, are fascinated by his skills in the operating room. Recently, Penn Jillette—yes, that Penn, of Penn & Teller—sat in on one of Wolf’s surgeries. “He’s always bugged me because he wanted to watch a heart surgery,” Wolf laughs. “He called me the morning of the surgery and said, ‘Last night I got on the Internet and read some stuff about the procedure you do. I think I’ve got it down. I’ll just do it.’” The two magicians, by the way, are planning to develop a trick to be performed at the Penn and Teller Theater in Las Vegas.

Wolf’s also friendly with one David Copperfield, perhaps the world’s most famous illusionist, who once tried to buy a rare vintage trick from Wolf called the Prediction Box. Wolf agreed to rent it to Copperfield for six months in exchange for a letter saying he’d used it and tickets to any show Wolf wanted. “He ended up keeping it,” he says, “for two years.”

Wolf smiles and pulls out a brand-new deck of cards—he keeps one in his pocket at all times—then asks a visitor to cut them, pick a card, look at it, and place it face down on a desk. He too does this, then shuffles the deck and adds both selected cards back in. “The goal is to have all the cards face down except yours and mine,” he says, snapping the deck in his hand. “Mine was the ace of clubs,” he says, casually adding: “We know yours is the two of diamonds.” He spreads the cards out. All of them are face down except for two—the right two. Stunned silence.

Since he was a kid, Wolf says, he’s wanted to make people happy, whether through an astounding magic trick or a life-saving medical procedure. “Patients want hope,” he says. “You make them feel better, and their hope turns into happiness. It’s the same way with magic.”

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