Side Effects: An Interview with Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky; drawing by David Levine

One of the difficulties in assessing the skill of the medical practitioners of the time is the almost complete absence of any records of the patients who had come for treatment.”

—From a review of Medicine in Medieval England, T. L. S. Jan. 11,

NYR: We were sorry to hear you had to go to the hospital a second time, Mr. Stravinsky.

I.S.: I appreciate the sympathy. And I need it, too. It has seemed to me lately that the greater the medical advances the narrower the patient’s chances of surviving doctors and hospitals. Until this last adventure I was unaware of the extent to which medicine men, like generals and politicians, enjoy the right to be wrong; and unaware of the breach between medical science for its own disinterested sake—“operation a success, patient dead”—and medical practice for the sake of interested people. Some of the publicity concerning the late Mr. Washkansky’s new heart helped to obviate the distinction, incidentally, by too transparently showing that the man’s life was less important than the symbiotic experiment for which it provided the opportunity. Freshly inspired by my own experience, I worried not only about Mr. Washkansky but about his news-unworthy fellow patients as well. While the nurses were posing for Life, and the doctors talking to the cover-story team of Time, who was distributing the digitalis?

My second confinement was twice as long as the first and, the so-called maharajah care notwithstanding, a hundred times more harrowing. I was too drugged, luckily, to have been aware of the worst of it, but clear enough to realize that a great deal was going wrong quite apart from what was wrong with me. My confidence in doctors had begun to dwindle, too, though the preoccupation with status in their profession—the AMA must harbor many a “médecin malgré lui“—had already disaffected me, even more than the surgical Schadenfreude and the pillpushing indifference (equanimity, if you prefer, but I am smarting from my experience). Nor was my confidence in routine hospital functions on the upswing. I was fed the wrong X-ray dye on one occasion; and on another nearly perfused with the wrong intravenous fluid; when the right bottle was found, moreover (probably about to be piped into a visitor) and finally attached to my arm, the needle slipped out and inflated the skin like a balloon. I “blew my stack,” as one of the nurses used to say, with less reason, but this protest could not have been frighteningly stentorian for the spigot on the next bottle was too loose, which so over-irrigated me that I began to wonder how much of the deleted me was the erstwhile me and how much the synthetic.

Identity problems of this type will become increasingly common as more and more brains are washed, and as—overcoming complications of histology and apartheid—spare-part banks, relays of still-functioning organs, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.