An Interview with Dr. Cy Stein,Father and Doctorby Allison Stein, New City, NYMy father, Dr. Cy Stein, always enjoys telling us about his profession over dinner. His stories are always interesting and sometimes surprising.In your line of work, have you ever met anyone interesting? I've met a number of very interesting and well-known people. When I was in college, I saw Margaret Mead speak. I didn't think that what she said made any sense, but everyone was cheering wildly, like every word she said was a profound insight into the human condition. I was very disappointed.Did you meet anyone else famous while you were in college? Yes, one day, I ran into Telford Taylor, one of the chief American prosecutors at Nuremberg. He was a distinguished looking man, tall, with white hair - a true patrician. He was about 65 and was giving a lecture at Brown. I wanted to speak to him but he was walking with a young professor, one of those "Get out of my way, son, you're bothering me" types of people, and I only got about 30 seconds to talk. But I never forgot it - very impressive guy.I know you went to Stanford to study chemistry. Did you meet anyone interesting there?Sure, one of the first people I met there was Linus Pauling. He won two Nobel prizes - one in Chemistry and the other, Peace. That day in 1974 he was giving a lecture about his newest theories on vitamin C. He thought it prevented cancer. I wasn't so sure and everyone now knows that Linus overstretched himself. Pauling was an incomparable chemist, but as a cancer physician ... that's another story. I saw him again in 1977, giving another lecture on vitamin C. Frankly, I was embarrassed for him, because this was a great man nearing the end of his career and his talk was disjointed and vague. I felt ashamed.Did you meet anyone else at Stanford?You bet. There were all kinds of Nobel prize winners running around Stanford. Paul Flory won a Nobel prize my first year there. He shared an office with Henry Taube, my research professor. Henry won a Nobel prize too, in 1983, long after I graduated. It was a tremendous thrill for all of his former students.What did you do after getting your Ph.D. at Stanford?I went to medical school at Einstein in New York City. I have a tendency to always come back to New York. I was born in New York, I grew up here and I guess it's really my home. So, you can go back again; at least I did. Einstein was a wonderful place, especially for a medical student. After all, we were paying customers, so they had to be nice. Students were treated very well.Where did you do your subsequent training?I went to New York Hospital on the swanky upper East Side.You must have met some interesting individuals there. Oh yes, that was the place to go if you were rich and sick. The most interesting incident happened in 1984. I was working the night shift in the emergency room. It was a relatively small place, so there was only one medical doctor. I got a call: "Dr. Stein, Mrs. Nixon is coming in." I said something like: "All right, I'll see what I can do." About two minutes later I got another call: "Dr. Stein, this is the Secret Service. We're bringing in the President." Now, this was only three years after Reagan had been shot, so I didn't know what they were talking about. The agent was very nice and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It's President Nixon. Mrs. Nixon isn't feeling well." Well, I thought, I'll believe it when I see it. But, sure enough, 20 minutes later, a huge stretch limo rolls up to the door and a very attractive young lady gets out with a submachine gun under her arm. A minute later, Mr. and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon appear in the door of my emergency room. I never really liked the guy all that much. Having known of him my entire life, it still took the wind out of me to see him standing there in the flesh.What was wrong with Mrs. Nixon?Emphysema. She had it bad and used oxygen at home. How did she do?I stabilized her in the emergency room and she was admitted to a floor. Right before she left Mr. Nixon pulled me over and said, "Take good care of her, Dr. Stein. She's a wonderful woman." I knew he really cared about her. So, I guess he wasn't all bad. Two minutes later, he went to the elevator to see her. (She had already been moved upstairs.) He had to walk through the waiting area in the emergency room and you know what the emergency rooms are like in big city hospitals. I think half the people were comatose, but when he walked through, every head picked itself up and followed him out the door. I think most of them thought that they were hallucinating. I thought it was very funny.Two days later I was on her floor. She was a very gracious woman. Even though she was ill, she treated everyone with great respect, even the lowliest intern. Remarkable. Not all of the celebrities I met were so human.Who wasn't so "human"?Well, Bette Davis. She didn't like the hospital security very much. She used to boot them out of her room. Who else did I meet? Benny Fried-man. He was a New York Giant in the '20s. Who else? Jack White-head, who set up the Whitehead Research Institute at MIT. His wife was very ill. She was a very nice lady and, unfortunately, suffered terribly. It was enough to tear your heart out. Also, Dominique DeMenil, who just died recently. She was a great art collector and philanthropist. Very, very pleasant woman. Sometimes it amazes me how some people can carry on so well even when they're not feeling well. That takes character. Oh, how could I forget the widow of Jahn von Neumann? He was a great mathematician. She had some problem with her stomach. No one could figure it out. But my medical student was very street smart. When she was out of the room one day, he searched it and found vials of narcotics. She had been surreptitiously taking them. They ruined the motility of her stomach. Case closed. I'll never forget, Jolie Gabor. Well into her 80's then, she also died recently. Very dignified and perhaps somewhat vain. She put on her makeup every morning; I guess it's a way of retaining your dignity under difficult circumstances. Eva called one day. My intern took the call. She started using the "I know the chief of the hospital" nonsense. I don't know what the intern said, but we never heard from the chief of the hospital.Weren't you at New York Hospital during the Libby Zion incident? Not only was I there, but that night (the first week of March, 1984) there were two junior residents on call and I was one of them. Libby Zion might've been my patient. You know what? I'm the Forrest Gump of medicine and science. I see all this stuff happening, but I'm really not part of it. If Libby had been my patient, she'd still be bringing up the daisies. I knew at the time it was drugs, drugs, drugs. Poor Louise, who was the intern that night, got dragged through hell because of it in the newspapers and on "60 Minutes." I know Louise did absolutely nothing wrong. I followed this case for years and years, horrified. There were so many agendas: the father, the media, the Health Commissioner David Axelrod. Where did you work next? Did you meet anyone there?Next I worked at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. Well, I did meet George Bush when he was Vice President - we used to treat congressmen who had cancer. If you were a patient and the Vice President came to visit you, that meant that you were going to lose your party membership very soon. Every now and then, Mr. Bush would come up. He was a striking looking man, ramrod straight, trim, every inch the patrician. In later years, the press started calling him a wuss. Take one look at the guy - he was no wuss. Surprising thing was, you could walk right up and down the hall while he was just standing there. The security people weren't obvious, unlike when Reagan came through a year later. They herded us behind closed doors like cattle.Did you meet anyone when you were on the faculty of Columbia University worth mentioning?Well, Cecilia Bartoli came up to the office one day. She's a world-renowned opera singer. I had one of her recordings. She was nice enough to sign it for me. I go all over the world now and meet a lot of interesting people. Most recently I've been in Switzerland, Sweden, and England. The BBC recently filmed a documentary on some of my research. It should show up in this country on PBS in about six months. I'm looking forward to it. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.