In Memoriam: Toni Zavistovski
On April 25, 2014, The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation lost a beloved supporter with the passing of Toni Zavistovski, a talented and accomplished violinist who performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for over 30 years. Weeks before her untimely passing, Toni had authored a personal account of her experience in the mid-1980s as a patient under Dr. Waxman’s care for breast cancer. We are proud to share her recollections, which include vivid stories of recruiting iconic opera stars such as Marilyn Horne and Placido Domingo to perform at SWCRF fundraisers of the 1990s. Her words are punctuated by a candidness and humor that convey the charm, wit and generous spirit of this amazing lady who will be missed.
In 1985, knowing I faced post-operative chemotherapy, my search for an oncologist began. The fourth name on my list of prospects was Samuel Waxman, a prominent doctor who had his own cancer research laboratory at Mt. Sinai Hospital and was recommended by two friends who had never met each other. I thought that was a positive sign. He greeted me warmly and began asking personal questions, unlike any of the three previous doctors I had consulted. Within seconds I felt as if, in Dr. Waxman’s eyes, I was a human being, not just a statistic.
“Tell me about your support system,” was his first request.
Of course I described my “rocks,” Leshek and my kids.
“Would you prefer to continue working through treatment, or would you like to take some months off?” Dr. Waxman asked. He was aware of my position as assistant principal violin in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
“It is important to me that my children see their mother functioning normally. I want to keep working,” I replied.
“If you want to work, you will work. You’ve had surgery to remove the tumor and any surrounding malignant cells. Think of chemotherapy as an insurance policy,” he said.
Dr. Waxman’s approach had a powerful impact on me. It was clear that I found the right doctor. No more “shopping,” thank god. Dr. Waxman explained that because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, my treatment would be aggressive and would take place in three stages. A moderate “cocktail” of drugs for the first few months, followed by about six months of very strong meds, including the still-used miracle drug Adriamycin, and ending with a few more months on another drug combination. Each treatment would be preceded by an injection of the anti-nausea drug, Compazine.
The treatments were administered at Dr. Waxman’s Fifth Avenue office. After the first infusion, the nurse suggested that I lie down for a rest when we got home. I’ve never been one to rest or nap during the day, but like a dutiful patient, I marched up the stairs to our bedroom and got into bed. Five minutes later I sat upright and thought, Why am I lying down? I feel fine. That was the last time in the 13 months of treatment that I coddled myself.
It was interesting to encounter the reactions of well-meaning friends and colleagues.
“Don’t you feel sick?”
“How are you coping with this tragedy?”
“It isn’t a tragedy. I’m lucky that there is an available treatment and that I feel fine.”
“But, how can you say you’re lucky when you have this disease?”
Here’s how: It could be worse. Not only was I able to live my life pretty normally. There was so much I had to be thankful for. Having such a loving, supportive husband and four such loving, supportive children; being treated by a world-class oncologist in whom I had complete confidence; having a great job in one of the finest musical organizations in the world; living in a beautiful house surrounded by the glories of nature; having multiple distractions in my daily life. How could I not feel lucky? I confronted my health challenge head-on, but didn’t wallow in it. Self-pity is not in my nature. What good would that do anyway?
About four months into my treatment, which I was tolerating very well, Dr. Waxman asked if I would consider sharing my experience with a new patient named Barbara, who was about to begin the same drug protocol and was frightened. Without hesitation I agreed to speak to her and share my responses to the drugs and the positive thrust of my life. It was a powerful undertaking and one that I repeated as often as the opportunity arose.
The day after my last chemo treatment I had a routine appointment with my surgeon and told him I’d just completed the drug protocol.
“Mazel tov! You must be so relieved,” he said.
Strangely enough, that wasn’t so. I felt unsettled and not celebratory at all. My “insurance policy” was severed and it made me uneasy. It didn’t take long to overcome that feeling.
About a year after my treatment ended, during one of my follow-up appointments with Dr. Waxman he posed a question.
“Would you consider joining the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation (SWCRF) benefit planning committee? Our next fund-raiser is scheduled in six months and we need an artist to perform. Is it possible, with your connections in the opera world, that you could solicit a star who would waive their fee in order to help us raise money for cancer research?”
By that time I was very familiar with Dr. Waxman’s lab at Mt. Sinai Hospital and his brilliant research projects.
“How about Marilyn Horne?” I asked, knowing that she would be more than happy to sing for such a cause --- particularly considering our lifelong friendship --- if a mutually agreed upon date could be found.
Dr. Waxman was thrilled. It was my first foray into the world of fund-raisers and it was eye-opening. We brought in a whopping $600,000 that night, the inauguration of my participation in the bi-annual Galas for some time to come. Two years later my dear friend Samuel Ramey agreed to sing. After Sam came Frederica Von Stade. In 1993, I asked Marilyn to sing again (she had established a friendship with Sam Waxman by that time) and she heartily agreed.
We were planning the 1995 event during the time Placido Domingo was rehearsing Mozart’s opera Idomeneo at the Met. Armed with a packet of SWCRF materials, I gathered my courage and knocked on his dressing room door one morning during a break. After all, I had nothing to lose by asking.
Placido responded to my request: “If we can find an available date, I would be happy to sing. I think the safest would be the Friday evening following the dress rehearsal of Otello. For sure I won’t book myself for anything that night!”
I was ecstatic. I was well aware of Placido’s intensely packed schedule. But then, Placido’s face fell. He was looking at the SWCRF information materials and asked, “But would a Friday night be inappropriate for this audience?”
He noticed the name Waxman and realized it was a Jewish name. I was astonished by his sensitivity. The Foundation committee members were so grateful and excited to have Domingo, they decided to go ahead with that date regardless of the small number of people who might be unable to attend for religious reasons.
I approached James Levine—Artistic Director of the Metropolitan Opera and an incredible pianist with whom I spent many years as students at the Aspen Music Festival—to ask if he would accompany Placido. Though Jim readily agreed, he was forced to back out later because of a recording schedule change that he had to conduct.
When I broached the subject of a replacement pianist with Placido, he said, “Would you mind if I accompany myself? I plan to sing zarzuela and that way I won’t need rehearsals with anyone but me?”
Would I mind?! What an amazing opportunity for everyone. Not only would we listen to the singing of one of the greatest tenors in the world, we would hear him play the piano as well!
At 11am on Friday, September 29, 1995, we began the dress rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night performance of Verdi’s Otello with Placido Domingo in the title role, Renée Fleming singing Desdemona and James Levine on the podium. Placido and Renée sang in full voice throughout the four-hour rehearsal of one of the greatest opera masterpieces ever written.
The Waxman Gala was to be held that night at the Pierre Hotel. A limo was waiting for Placido at the stage door shortly after the end of the rehearsal. He asked us to accompany him to the Pierre and help check the acoustics in the room. I presumed he would only sing a few notes before resting in the hotel room that was booked for him by the Foundation. Not Placido. He sat down at the piano and proceeded to practice, singing and playing, for at least an hour. There was no sheet music in sight. It was all in his head. He finished at about five o’clock, an hour before the recital and enough time for Leshek and me to gather our evening clothes and find a place to change.
But not before Placido approached me with an unexpected question, “Would you please come up to my room for a minute?”
His assistant, Paul Gardner, joined us in the tiniest hotel room I’d ever seen, barely two feet on either side of the single bed. Placido led me to the bathroom. The toilet was situated so close to the door that when Placido sat down on the closed seat, his knees stuck out into the room.
He looked at me and said, “When I sing on stage I don’t wear glasses, but I have to wear one contact lens in order to see. I can’t put the contact in myself. Can you please do it?”
That was a first! I had inserted contacts in my own eyes with ease since I was sixteen years old. Putting one in someone else’s eye? Never. With trepidation, I put the little, nearly invisible rounded lens on my middle finger and aimed. I got it on the first try. I don’t know who was more relieved, Placido or me!
It was a night to remember. The hundreds of Waxman Foundation supporters were bedazzled by Placido’s breathtaking performance and dinner in the ballroom came to life with masses of shimmering black and white satin corkscrew ribbons cascading from the ceiling and magnificent white orchids sitting atop the black linen table coverings. The atmosphere buzzed with excitement throughout the evening and, we raised about $2 million for Sam’s vitally important cancer research.