Thirty years have passed since Andy Warhol died on 22nd February 1987 after what newspapers called “a routine gallbladder operation”. The upcoming anniversary stimulated retired surgeon Dr. John Ryan, of Seattle, WA, to research the circumstances of Warhol’s death, which he presented on the 19th February 2017 at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Surgical Association. Dr. Ryan’s findings suggest that the operation was far from “routine”.
Warhol was pathologically afraid of hospitals and wanted to avoid being admitted to hospital or being subjected to any operation. He had a personal physician, a Dr. Denton S. Cox who looked after him for many years. Warhol had symptoms of gallbladder disease for at least fifteen years prior to being admitted to the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on 20th February 1987. He had increased symptoms in the weeks or months before his admission and had barely eaten in the month before seeing renowned surgeon Dr. Bjorn Thorbjarnarson on 17th February. Warhol reportedly said to Dr. Thorbjarnarson “I will make you a rich man if you don’t operate on me.” At the time Warhol who was 5′ 11″ (about 180 cm) tall, weighed 128 lbs (58.2 kg). He was also anaemic and dehydrated.
So, why was the cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) not “routine”? On 3rd June 1968 Warhol was shot in the chest by playwright and actress Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) who had loaned Warhol a copy of the manuscript to her play “Up Your Ass”, asking Warhol’s opinion of the play. When in May 1968 she asked for the manuscript to be returned, Warhol told her he had lost it. Solanas borrowed $50 and used the money to buy a 32 calibre handgun. She returned to The Factory early on the morning of June 3rd, and was met by Morrissey who asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to see Warhol, but was told that he would not be at the Factory that day. However, Solanas would not leave, but hung about and eventually Warhol arrived and they got into the lift together. Once inside the Factory, at about 2.00 p.m. Warhol received a telephone call and while on the phone, Solanas fired three shots at him. The first two shots missed, but the third hit Warhol in the chest, puncturing both lungs, his spleen, stomach, liver, and oesophagus. She then turned the gun on art critic Mario Amaya shooting him in the hip and then tried to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, but luckily the gun jammed.
Warhol was seriously injured and taken to the Columbus-Mother Cabrini Hospital where he arrived pulseless. Warhol was pronounced clinically dead at 4.15 p.m. Vascular surgeon Giuseppe Rossi (1928-2016), who had considerable experience in operating on victims of gunshot wounds, was on duty.
Dr. Rossi found what he thought was a homeless old man, pale and without circulation and started heroic resuscitation. He opened Warhol’s chest and performed open heart massage while transfusing him with 12 units of blood. He then operated for five hours to repair Warhol’s internal injuries, removing the lower lobe of Warhol’s right lung and his spleen in the process. Miraculously, Warhol recovered, but was marked by the event, developing an incisional hernia which forced him to wear a corset for the rest of his life. It is said he also had a constantly weeping abdominal sore. Richard Avedon took a famous photo of Warhol the following year and Robert Levin took a much less well-known photo of him in May 1981, showing him wearing his hernia corset.
Three days after the appointment, Warhol finally allowed himself to be admitted to the New York Hospital and Dr. Thorbjarnarson performed the cholecystectomy on the morning of 21st February 1987. At operation, Warhol’s gallbladder was found to “be gangrenous” and fell apart as it was being removed. Dr. Thorbjarnarson decided also to repair Warhol’s hernia at the same time. Despite the complicated procedure, Warhol recovered well. He spent three hours in the recovery room before returning to his private room where he was in good spirits and in the ecening watched television and at 9.30 p.m. phoned his housekeepers. His nurse, Ms. Min Chou, checked on him at 0400 h on the 22nd February and saw all was well, but at 0545 she found him “blue and unresponsive” and stared “respiratory manoeuvres” and called the hospital’s cardiac arrest team. Despite resuscitation efforts Warhol was pronounced dead at 0631 h.
A post mortem examination was performed and found Warhol to weigh 150 lbs (68.2 kg), significantly more than when he entered the hospital. His lungs were filled with fluid and his trachea was filled with pink, frothy fluid, signifying pulmonary oedema. The cause of death was ascribed to “ventricular fibrillation”. However, Warhol’s death certificate, registered by his brother John Warhola, on 26th February stated simply “pending further study.
At autopsy the cause of death was said to be due to “ventricular fibrillation”. Warhol’s lungs were found to be filled with fluid and his trachea brimmed with a pinkish fluid, signifying fluid overload. It was later said he died of a heart attack secondary to the stress of the operation and fluid overload.
An inquiry into Warhol’s death was held in April 1987 and concluded that his care was unsatisfactory. Warhol had not been properly examined or adequate tests taken before he was operated on. The inquiry found no fault in the surgery.
In 1991, Warhol’s estate (his two brothers and the Warhol Foundation) sued the hospital for lack of care and after a settlement were awarded a sum assumed to be $3 million.
Dr. Guiseppe Rossi knew nothing about Andy Warhol or about Pop Art. Warhol rewarded him with several prints and a complete folio of Soup Cans II. Dr. Rossi didn’t know what to do with them and they were stored under his bed for decades. Since Dr. Rossi’s death in 2016, his family decided to sell the prints and Christies will be auctioning them on 24th-25th October 2017. Warhol also sent Dr. Rossi a cheque for $1000, which bounced
and was returned to Dr. Rossi, who had it framed and hung it on his wall.
This post is based on the following articles.
Christies.com: Prints gifted by Warhol to the doctor who saved him. October 2017. (http://www.christies.com/features/Prints-gifted-by-Warhol-to-the-doctor-who-saved-him-8607-1.aspx)
Choplik, Blake: Andy Warhol’s Death: Not So Simple After All. New York Times, Feb 21, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2m4485v.
Farber M. A. Warhol Received inadequate care in Hospital, Health Board Asserts. New York Times. April 11th, 1987.
Choplik, Blake:The Surgeon Who Saved Andy Warhol’s Life Has Died. The Daily Pic. March 14th 2016. (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/surgeon-saved-andy-warhols-life-died-448463).
Sullivan, Ronald D. Care Faulted in the Death of Warhol. New York Times, December 5th, 1991. (http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/05/nyregion/care-faulted-in-the-death-of-warhol.html)