Friday, Feb. 24, 2006 | 7:22 a.m.
While waiting for my wife and daughter at the Fashion Show mall, I grew captivated by a fellow demonstrating a magic trick at one of those little carts.
He seemed to be holding a little red, glowing ball between his forefinger and thumb. When he tossed it from hand to hand, it disappeared in flight. Then he did the most remarkable thing, pushing the ball into one ear and pulling it out from the other ear. Great stuff!
Some shoppers paused to watch, others just walked by and ignored him. He didn't seem to care. He just kept smiling and playing with the little red ball.
We live in a city of phenomenal magic, and here I was transfixed by some guy in a shopping mall peddling little red, disappearing balls.
Was he a frustrated magician? An apprentice learning his trade? Maybe he was a retired rocket scientist just earning some fun money in his retirement.
Turns out that this guy - his name is Tony Salas - is a medical marvel.
He tells people he's working at the magic booth for free, demonstrating the ball trick because he engineered it. And that much is true.
But what Tony is really doing is testing his heart. Tony, you see, should be dead. About four years ago, his arteries started failing him, narrowing and collapsing.
Nothing helped: a triple-bypass surgery, 33 stents and a boatload of medicines.
"He should have died a hundred times," said Dr. Richard Schatz, who would become Tony's cardiologist. "He was the proverbial dead man walking. He couldn't brush his teeth without angina. He was despondent, and shooting himself up with medicines to make the pain go away."
Medical care in Las Vegas couldn't touch the problem. Doctors told Tony's wife, "We can't do anything for him. Everything is blocked. Take him home and wait."
Tony looked for help at Scripps Green Hospital in San Diego, where Dr. Schatz was doing research on stem cell therapy.
Tony was in such bad shape, he was allowed to participate in a groundbreaking clinical study involving stem cells. The research had moved from test tubes to animals, and the FDA said it would be OK now to test it on 24 humans. Tony was among them.
Doctors harvested stem cells from Tony's bone marrow and injected them into his heart. Doctors hoped it would promote the growth of collateral blood vessels leading from his heart, delivering blood to his body. They would do the work of the collapsed arteries.
And it worked.
This puts Tony at the vanguard of medicine. Dr. Schatz calls him a poster child. He has been on "Today" and been written up in newspapers because he is a stem cell success story. His experience is a medical milestone.
And to think I was impressed just by the red ball trick. Tony said the realization that he would be able to lead a virtually normal life occurred about six months after the procedure. He and his wife, Nellie, were driving to dinner at a local buffet when he decided to take the oxygen tube from his nose. He was able to handle breathing on his own without pain.
A week or so later, he was able to walk across the street to the mailbox without oxygen. During a follow-up at the doctor's office, he was doubling his time on the treadmill.
It was time for Tony to rejoin the living.
He was an industrial design engineer - coming up with things like countertop cosmetics displays at department stores. He loved working on ways to illuminate displays.
One thing led to another, and he engineered his trick red balls, which he's now demonstrating at his friend's magic booth. Tony has bigger dreams: He wants to open up a shop where he will engrave photos onto vein-free black marble. He's on the hunt for an investor to back him with a little bit of venture capital.
To help generate foot traffic, he plans to sell marble engraved with the photos of celebrities, and contribute the profits toward stem cell research.
In the meantime, you can find Tony at the Fashion Show mall, working at a little cart between Macy's and Robinsons-May.
There's no oxygen bottle in sight.
"Today, I've been on my feet for six hours," Tony boasted.
The cart is called The Magic Zone and, when Tony's working, it really is. He's playing with those little red balls with all his heart.
Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 259-2310 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.