On the front page of The Houston Chronicle, there was a headline that said, “Pop Icon Andy Warhol Dies After Routine Surgery.” Time magazine said it was a mystery how “the country’s most famous pop musician died in a well-known big city hospital after a fairly routine gallbladder procedure.”
In the days and decades after the 58-year-old artist died, which happened 30 years ago on Wednesday, this story was told over and over again in different ways all over the world.
The plot has been changed by Dr. John Ryan, who is a retired surgeon and medical historian. In a recent phone interview, Dr. Ryan, who is the former chief of surgery at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital, said, “This was a major, major surgery on a very sick person.
Dr. Ryan, who talked about his research at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Surgical Association on Sunday, says that Warhol’s death shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Dr. Ryan, a happy and active Seattleite who has been retired for four years, has been looking into Warhol’s medical history.
His famous Pop Art historian brother-in-law Hal Foster told him to go in that direction. Warhol’s famous father had his gallbladder taken out in 1928, the same year that Warhol was born. Dr. Ryan has found that the surgeon who did Warhol’s last surgery was operating on someone who had been having gallbladder problems for almost 15 years and whose family had a history of the same.
Before he died, Warhol struggled with his illness for at least a month, but he tried to keep up his hard routine. Because he is afraid of hospitals, he hasn’t been able to get any kind of medical care.
Even when he was in the office of famous surgeon Bjorn Thorbjarnarson, who was known for treating the Shah of Iran, Andy Warhol still asked for care at home. When I went to the artist’s home in New Jersey in 2014, Dr. Thorbjarnarson told me that the artist had said, “I’ll make you rich if you don’t operate on me.”
He is now 95 years old and lives in Florida. When the sick man was finally put on the operating table three days later at New York Hospital, Dr. Thorbjarnarson was glad he didn’t give in to Warhol’s pleas (now NewYork-Presbyterian).
The surgeon said that when he took out the gallbladder, he saw that it was completely dead.
Dr. Ryan’s research showed that Warhol had been taking speed every day for years, that he was dehydrated and malnourished from not eating much in the month before, and that he was still dealing with the effects of being shot by a jealous hanger-on in 1968.
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He had nine damaged organs and was said to be brain-dead in the emergency room. At that point, only a great surgeon and good luck saved his life.