Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Catching Her Breath

Virtuoso Flutist Eugenia Zukerman Comes Back Strong After Battling a Rare Lung Ailment

 

After 18 albums and 23 years as a concert flutist, Eugenia Zukerman seemed to be breathing easy back in December 1994. One month later she was suddenly having trouble breathing at all. "Every time I performed, I felt as if I were drowning, as though I were at the bottom of a pool and had to get to the top fast," recalls Zukerman, 52. The fatigue and spiky fevers that accompanied her breathing woes led Zukerman to think she was suffering from bronchitis or maybe menopause. The truth proved far more frightening; Zukerman had developed eosinophilic pneumonitis, a rare disease which, if untreated, can trigger a massive, and possibly fatal, inflammation of the lung.

Now, almost three years later, Zukerman not only has her disease under control (there is no known cure), but her bump with mortality has sharpened her drive. In July her 19th album was released—an impressive milestone for a flutist not named Rampal or Galway—and she is back to concertizing at full tilt. Next summer she takes over as the music director of the prestigious 5½-week-long Bravo! Colorado Vail Valley Music Festival. Meanwhile, she continues as arts correspondent for TV's CBS Sunday Morning and has cowritten a book—with her pediatric nephrologist sister Julie Ingelfinger—on her illness. "I am more optimistic," says Zukerman. "It's time for me, with this renewed energy, to do as much as I can."

Zukerman got past the shock of the diagnosis, only to learn that the treatment was equally frightening. The drug of choice, a corticosteroid called prednisone, can induce a number of nasty side effects: bone loss, mood swings and a swelling that produces the characteristic moonface of high-dose users. Zukerman rebelled. "My first reaction was, 'I'm not taking this stuff!' " she recalls. Only when Ingelfinger told her that there was no alternative did Zukerman relent.

Through a strict no-salt, high-calcium diet—to counter swelling and bone loss—she managed to avoid most of the physical side effects of the drug. But she couldn't escape psychological attacks. "It's like you're glued to the ceiling," says Zukerman of being on prednisone. "It's like you're stoned, and you're not even having fun." After a three-week self-imposed hiatus, she returned to playing only to suffer panic attacks right onstage. "It was very disorienting," says Zukerman. "You'd look at a phrase, and you'd think, 'What key am I in?' "

"She underwent an alteration of her personality, she became volatile," says director and screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen), Zukerman's second husband. Instead of slowing her down, Zukerman's illness seemed to spur her on to achieve even more. "She has a very restless, curious mind," says Seltzer, who is now penning a horror movie for Steven Spielberg. Part of that energy was poured into Coping with Prednisone, a book published last month and directed to the one million Americans whom Zukerman and Ingelfinger conservatively estimate take high doses of the drug for lupus, multiple sclerosis and other ills.

Accomplishment seems to run in the family. Zukerman's father, Stanley Rich, was a prolific inventor and entrepreneur who developed scanning sonar for submarines in World War II. Her mother, Shirley Cohen Rich, was a modern dancer and the first woman accepted into City College of New York's graduate engineering school.

Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., their three daughters turned into chronic overachievers. Ingelfinger, 55, is an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School, an amateur pianist, a former marathoner and a fiction and poetry writer. Younger sister Laurie Rich Alban, 43, is a media consultant and author.

Zukerman attended Barnard College for two years before transferring to Juilliard to study flute. There she met violinist and fellow student Pinchas Zukerman. "He was the bad boy of Juilliard," says Zukerman, recalling his reputation for disrupting orchestra rehearsal. He was also a charmer and, eventually, a musical mentor to Zukerman. They fell in love, married in 1968 and had two daughters, Arianna, now 24, and Natalia, 22. Eugenia launched her solo career in 1971 and published the first of two novels, Deceptive Cadence, about a concert pianist who disappears, in 1981.

Shortly after her marriage ended in 1983, Zukerman met Seltzer, a divorced father of four grown children (two of them adopted), on a blind date. Married since 1988, the couple share a sprawling, nine-room apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Although it's impossible to know if the disease will recur, Zukerman remains optimistic. Even as she keeps her illness at bay, she seems to exhaust those around her. "Sometimes I think she might become an astronaut," jokes daughter Arianna, herself a fledgling opera singer. "I don't know what's left down here!"

P.S. As someone who had lived with lupus for 20 years, I strongly identified with Zukerman’s battle against a chronic inflammatory disease and was slightly in awe of her whole family of overachievers. To prove that she was human, she admitted she had several unpublished novels on her shelf and then recalled her father’s mantra: “It won’t get done unless you apply your bottom to the chair.”

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