A Glimpse into the Disease and Trauma of Andy Warhol’s Life
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) in 1975. Source: Mondadori Publishers, gettyimages.co.uk, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Retired Seattle surgeon and medical historian, John A. Ryan Jr. with his wife, Jody
Though Andy Warhol’s death has been associated with routine gallbladder surgery over the past three decades, one medical expert is saying that the legendary pop artist’s death shouldn’t be considered such a shock. “This was major, major surgery – not routine – in a very sick person,“ medical historian and retired surgeon Dr. John Ryan told The New York Times in a recent phone interview. Ryan, is the meritus chief of surgery at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, Washington, and has been spending the past four years since his retirement studying Warhol’s medical history. Warhol’s family had a history of gallbladder issues, and Warhol himself had been very ill for at least a month before his death. However, his fear of hospitals combined with his hefty workload made him put his health on the back-burner.
In terms of Warhol’s early health: in third grade, he had Sydenham’s chorea (also known as St. Vitus’ Dance), the nervous system disease that causes involuntary movements of the extremities, which is believed to be a complication of scarlet fever which causes skin pigmentation blotchiness. Often bedridden as a child, he became an outcast at school and bonded with his mother. At times when he was confined to bed, he drew, listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars around his bed. Warhol later described this period as very important in the development of his personality, skill-set and preferences. After graduating from high school, his intentions were to study art education at the University of Pittsburgh in the hope of becoming an art teacher, but his plans changed and he enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he studied commercial art.
Warhol went in for a seemingly simple gallbladder operation in 1987 but ended up dying just 12 hours later – shocking the nation. But now, Dr. Ryan says we should have seen the icon’s death coming. According to Dr. Ryan, who presented his findings, last week at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Surgical Association, Warhol’s death should not have come as such a surprise. Looking at the pop artist’s medical history, Dr Ryan discovered that Warhol had almost 15 years of gallbladder trouble and a family history of it as well. Warhol’s father had his gallbladder removed in 1928, the same year his son was born. Warhol had been sick for at least a month before his death, although he had attempted to hide it. His fear of hospitals was another factor in his lack of receiving any serious treatment. The revered artist had a fear of hospitals which had delayed his ability to receive serious treatment. Further medical records research showed Dr Ryan that Warhol was dehydrated and gaunt from having barely eaten in the previous month. Additionally, Warhol had been taking speed daily for years. And he was still feeling the effects of a brush with death in 1968 after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist writer. At that time, he had been declared dead in the emergency room and had nine damaged organs – Warhol’s surgeon gave even odds on the artist lasting the night. His recovery left him with a lifetime of trouble with eating and swallowing, as well as a split in his abdominal muscles that gave him a large hernia. After he survived the gunshot wounds, for the rest of his life, Warhol had to wear a special truss or corset to hold his innards together.
So in 1987, on top of the gallbladder removal, and repair to his stomach wall, according to reports, the operation seemed to go well, and Warhol was in his room making calls that evening. A private nurse who went to check on him at 4am said he still seemed fine. But about two hours later, Warhol was found blue and unresponsive, and resuscitation efforts failed. An autopsy concluded that �ventricular fibrillation’ was the cause of death, meaning that Warhol’s heart had quivered and stopped. Stewart Redmond Walsh, a professor of vascular surgery at the National University of Ireland, Galway, has researched sudden death after surgery, and says it’s more common than we think. He explained that when a sick body goes through the trauma of a major surgery, the entire body feels the stress, not just the organ being operated on, which can be fatal. When Dr Ryan entered the data from Warhol’s case into the new Surgical Risk Calculator of the American College of Surgeons, it put such a patient’s chance of dying at 4.2 percent.
Andy Warhol suffered from many health problems throughout his life
Andy Warhol’s family suffered from a history of gallbladder illness. In 1928, his father Orenja, had his gallbladder removed. And less than 12 hours after a routine gallbladder removal, Warhol passed away from complications.
At the age of eight, Warhol came down with a rare disease known as chorea, or St. Vitus’ dance, characterized by involuntary movement, disturbed gait, grimacing, and hypotonia, or abnormally low muscle tone. Originally, Warhol was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. At the time, before antibiotics, approximately 10 percent of cases of rheumatic fever worsened and became chorea. Warhol stayed in bed for about ten weeks. When he finally returned to school, he had a relapse of the illness on the first day and returned to bed.
Blotchy skin is a common symptom of chorea. By the time Warhol became famous, in the early 1960s, the blotches had gone away, but they marked his face in adolescence and early adulthood, and he had bad skin his entire life. He wrote: �I had another skin problem, too – I lost all my pigment when I was eight years old. Another name people used to call me was “Spot“.
Warhol also had a huge drug problem. His New York City studio, the Factory was the hip hangout for amphetamine (speed) users. In particular, Warhol was addicted to Obetrol, marketed today as Adderall, a fairly common drug used to treat ADHD. He took a daily dose throughout his life.
In June 1968, he was shot at close range by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist writer. For the rest of his life he wore a corset that held his bowels together where his ruined abdominal muscles could no longer.
He also worried about �catching’ cancer, his fluctuating weight, colds that he was convinced presaged pneumonia, about brain tumors and strokes, blood pressure and blackouts. In the last years of his life, Warhol worried most about AIDS, and carefully avoided those (even close friends or ex-lovers) whom he knew to be suffering from the �magic disease’.
Sources: NY Times, Wikipedia, DailyMail.uk.com;