Amy Silverstein, Who Chronicled a Life of Three Hearts, Dies at 59
Amy Silverstein, a celebrated writer whose two memoirs, including “Sick Girl,” from 2007, recounted her grueling yet joyous odyssey through a life that required two heart transplants, died on May 5. She was 59.
Her husband, Scott Silverstein, confirmed her death but did not say where she died. The cause was cancer, which Ms. Silverstein had attributed to decades of post-transplant medications. She lived in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Hers was a death foretold — by Ms. Silverstein herself — in an Opinion essay published in The New York Times on April 18.
“Today, I will explain to my healthy transplanted heart why, in what may be a matter of days or weeks at best, she — well, we — will die,” Ms. Silverstein wrote. Recounting these thoughts, which arose one day on her regular vigorous jog, she continued: “I slide my hand across my chest and speak aloud, palm to my heart’s crisp beating. ‘I’m so sorry, sweet girl.’ She is not used to hearing me this way, outside my head, beyond the body we share.”
By that point, the details of her life with successive hearts that were not her own (both, by coincidence, came from 13-year-old girls, one of whom died in a car crash) were familiar to legions of admirers through her many magazine articles and television appearances, as well as her two books, including “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends,” from 2017.
Each transplant — the first was in 1988, when she was 24 and a second-year law student at New York University — gave her a new lease on life, as Ms. Silverstein often recounted with deep gratitude. But in no way did her life go back to what it was.
“People don’t recognize that it’s hard because I’m not toting around an oxygen tank, and I appear to be fine,” she said in a 2007 interview with the magazine Marie Claire. “I kind of live a disguised life. When I get up from the table after a long dinner with friends, they just walk to the door. I’m walking, and my heart is saying, ‘What are you doing?’ Most people take for granted that when you stand, your heart speeds up immediately. Mine doesn’t and I get a feeling of ‘wrong’ in my body every time.”
Amy Jill Shorin was born in Queens on June 3, 1963, the younger of two daughters of Arthur T. Shorin, who was chief executive of Topps, the sports cards and collectibles company, and Arlene (Fein) Shorin. Amy, whose parents later divorced, grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island.
A member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, she graduated from New York University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism before deciding on a law career.
In her first year in law school, she began experiencing mysterious symptoms, including tightness in her chest, digestive issues and fainting spells. She wrote in “Sick Girl” that she would “wonder how many other young women had ever stared into a toilet bowl full of their own blood-streaked vomit, flushed it down, and dashed off to a two-hour seminar in constitutional law.”
A year later, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. “The heaviness in my chest turned out to be due not to poor digestion, as I’d thought, but rather to a grossly enlarged heart that was literally bursting out of me,” she wrote.
As her condition deteriorated, Ms. Silverstein rose to the top of the waiting list for a donor heart, which she received at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital in New York. It was only as she recovered from the operation that she began to learn the price of coronary salvation.
“With the medicines that she took and the repeated infections, she felt bad at some point virtually every single day,” Mr. Silverstein said in a phone interview. The powerful medicines used to prevent her immune system from rejecting the donor heart as a foreign object had countless side effects, he said, adding, “She would carry around a bag routinely in case she had to throw up.”
Ms. Silverstein endured treatment for repeated infections, multiple rounds of skin cancer and a variety of other conditions relating to a weakened immune system, her husband said. The couple found themselves settling in for interminable waits in New York City hospital emergency rooms to deal with one complication or another on a monthly basis.
To check for signs of rejection, she had to undergo frequent heart biopsies in which doctors “run a catheter down through your blood vessels and pluck pieces of your heart out,” Mr. Silverstein said. “She had over 90 of them.”
After “Sick Girl” was published, Ms. Silverstein received reams of fan letters from other transplant recipients, hailing her for her courage in bringing to light the odd mix of joy and misery that can accompany life with a new organ — what she called the “gratitude paradox.”
She also attracted hate mail as a vocal critic of the health care industry. “Organ transplantation is mired in stagnant science and antiquated, imprecise medicine that fails patients and organ donors,” she wrote in her recent Times essay, adding that the daily use of transplant drugs over years or decades can cause a host of other life-threatening conditions, including diabetes, uncontrollable high blood pressure, kidney damage and cancer.
Despite that destabilizing regimen, Ms. Silverstein maintained a vigorous life, returning to finish law school after her first transplant, then practicing briefly before abandoning the profession to raise a son, Casey, and, eventually, to write.
Amid a life of careful regimentation, including regular and intense exercise and adherence to a strict diet, avoiding even the smallest pat of butter or sip of alcohol, she took up the guitar and songwriting. Once, in the late 1990s, she appeared as a solo act at the Bottom Line nightclub in Greenwich Village.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Silverstein is survived by her son as well as her father and stepmother, Beverly Shorin. Her sister Jodie Hirsch died in 2020.
When her first donor heart succumbed to vasculopathy — vascular lesions that can be caused by some medications — she underwent a second transplant surgery in Los Angeles in 2014. Friends from around the country maintained a spreadsheet to schedule their visits successively over the course of her nearly three-month hospital stay “so she never had to spend a night alone in the hospital,” her husband said.
That experience became the basis of “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends,” an adaptation of which is currently in development as a limited series by Warner Bros. TV and Bad Robot, the media company run by the director and producer J.J. Abrams and his wife, Katie McGrath, Mr. Silverstein said.
But in one sense, none of her human relationships were quite so intimate as the one she had with the approximately eight-ounce bundle of someone else’s muscle beating beneath her rib cage.
“On our daily runs, when my ’70s yacht rock playlist propels each stride,” she wrote in the Times essay, “this heart from a 13-year-old donor revolts in my body with thumps of Oh puh-lease — and we giggle together, picking up our pace to sprinting.”
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