The Sweet Way This Musician Thanked the Woman Who Saved His life
By Barbara Hoffman
“If I can get through this show, I can get through anything,” George Winston told himself one night in September, 2012. The Grammy-winning pianist made it through his sold-out Sandpoint, Idaho, concert, but barely, collapsing in his dressing room after leaving the stage.
Three months earlier, Winston, now 68, had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of cancer in which blood cells in the bone marrow fail to mature into the red or white cells needed to carry oxygen and fight infection. MDS claimed the lives of Carl Sagan, Susan Sontag and many others; “GMA” host Robin Roberts was public about her own battle with the disease.
Most vulnerable are people over 60 who have been treated with radiation or chemotherapy for other cancers, leaving them with weakened immune systems. Winston had weathered both skin cancer and thyroid cancer, thanks to conventional medicine. But the American folk music composer also believed in alternative remedies: When his platelets plummeted, he tried staving off fatigue with oxtail soup. He thought he’d wait a few more months before letting his doctors have at him.
“There’s a time for alternatives and there’s a time when you say, ‘No, it’s too far gone,’” says the composer, whose CD “Spring Carousel,” out this month, consists of songs he wrote during his treatment. That time came on Sept. 13, 2012, as he lay on the dressing-room floor. After being rushed to the emergency room, he was transferred to City of Hope hospital, outside LA.
It took only a week for specialists there to find him a donor for the bone-marrow transplant that saved his life. “Her name is Antonia,” he tells The Post, of the then-21-year-old woman from Germany. The hospital flew her in so Winston could meet her. “I gave her [my] 17 CDs and said, ‘Thanks for helping me make the next 15!’ ”
Dr. Azra Raza, director of the MDS Center at Columbia University Medical Center, calls Winston “very fortunate.” She says many people in their 60s don’t make it through the high-risk procedure, and that everyone who does fights infections afterwards.
Winston did, too. Yet four months after his transplant, he felt strong enough to play again. There was a baby grand in City of Hope’s auditorium, and he was at the keyboard anywhere from one to 10 hours a day, depending on his energy level. He wrote 58 songs there, 15 of which made it onto the new CD, all proceeds of which go to City of Hope.
“Every experience I have, every change of season, affects the music,” says Winston, whose albums include “Autumn” and “December.” MDS changed him, he says, in some ways, for the better.
“It gave me a good break to rest the hands,” he says with a laugh. “I tell everybody [given a cancer diagnosis], ‘Don’t be scared. It’s the 21st century. You have an extremely good chance!’ ”