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Elvis has Left the Building, but his Legend Lives On

Book corner: Elvis: Destined to Die Young by Sally A. Hoedel.

Singer and icon Elvis Presley passed away forty-six years ago at the relatively young age of forty-two. Presley wasn’t the first singer – or celebrity, for that matter – to pass before his time. But the circumstances surrounding his death have garnered as much press as the man himself did for his fame and music during his short life: on August 16, 1977, following several years of increasingly serious health issues, Presley was found dead on his bathroom floor, bloated and in poor health, with staggering levels of drugs in his body.

What exactly happened, how it happened, plus why it happened – all have been the subject of a media feeding frenzy that put his personal physician, Dr. George Nikolopoulos (AKA “Dr. Nick”) on trial and had him stripped of his medical license in the state of Tennessee. Later, a series of biographies were written, none too complimentary, that attempted to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Journalist Sally A. Hoedel, in her book Elvis: Destined to Die Young, attempts to do just that. The book is an odd spin on the standard rock star bios, which usually dwell on cultural impact and creativity. Hoedel, in a meticulously researched book, focuses on Elvis’ health and makes a bold but credible assertion: the prescription drugs, to which he was addicted in his later years, were not what killed him. He suffered from diseases in nine of eleven bodily systems, five of which were present from birth and as a result, was never going to live a long life.

Hoedel begins with Elvis’ family history and takes the reader back to early twentieth-century backwoods Mississippi, at the time one of the poorest regions in America. She explains that his maternal grandparents were first cousins, something that happened with alarming frequency in that era of the American South before modern medical practices and society’s taboos put a stop to it. Elvis’ maternal grandmother, Doll, suffered from Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (misdiagnosed as tuberculosis), a genetic disorder causing liver and lung issues. The resulting union, she explains, caused medical issues for their progeny. Elvis’ mother, Gladys, died at the age of 46 following liver problems, which Hoedel explains was widespread in her family tree and passed on to Elvis (his autopsy confirmed that he was a carrier). According to Hoedel’s book, it is not a coincidence that the mother and son died at around the same age.

Elvis also suffered asthma as a child, also a possible result of Alpha-1, and frequent bouts of tonsilitis, the latter well until his adult years and way past the age at which this sickness is common. But two ailments appeared in his early years that would plague him his entire life with catastrophic ramifications. He suffered horrible constipation problems, putting him in constant pain and creating additional colon issues, and he was a lifelong insomniac. Regarding the latter, Hoedel explains that in his 1970s performing years, he was unable to sufficiently rest enough between performances and suffered exhaustion, sometimes ending up in the hospital. In fact, the list of hospitalizations is staggering and is by far longer than that of any performer active today.

The second half of the book focuses on Elvis’ final touring years and the prescription drugs on which Elvis would create a dependency in his later years. Hoedel asserts that Elvis did not use drugs for recreational purposes, to escape from reality, or as a means to enhance his creativity, as was (and arguably still is) common to rock stars. As a patriot and religious Christian, he was staunchly against drug and alcohol abuse. Instead, he needed the drugs to manage his health. Hoedel describes in length the eleven bodily systems and the nine that were failing him, and why. A partial glimpse of those health issues includes arthritis, glaucoma (hence those giant-framed sunglasses he wore in the 70s), anemia, hypertension, diabetes, and an enlarged colon and spleen.

One wonders how he even got on stage to perform in that condition. The book deals at length with the grueling performance circuit he endured following his 1968 comeback, due to the Colonel. For example, Elvis would routinely play Las Vegas for weeks at a time, with two shows a night, giving a high-energy performance where he would lose several pounds of sweat per show. Hoedel describes shows in the 70s where he fell down on stage and others in which he had to sit down to catch his breath and rest, asking his backup singers to take over.

The books deals with the question, why? For example, why didn’t he take time off from performing to rest and to undergo proper medical examinations? In the chapters on Elvis’ early life, Hoedel describes the gut-wrenching poverty that Elvis endured as a child, where his parents struggled to provide for him. At one point, for example, his family lived in a shack in an alley. Hoedel explains that Elvis was determined to be a provider for himself and for his family. As the years went on, he added more and more friends and family to his payroll, such as his cousins and stepbrothers, etc., for altruistic purposes. He repeatedly said he was unable to take a break from performing since people were counting on him. This feeling of obligation was also in regards to his fans, too, as he avoided doing anything that would let them down. His need to perform was made worse by irresponsible and impulsive spending habits, creating a severe cash flow problem that routinely forced him to go back on the road.

The book also exonerates Dr. Nikolopoulos, who was skewered in the national press after Elvis’ death for having no regard for Elvis’ health and for being the provider that killed Elvis with an endless supply of drugs. Hoedel provides evidence to the contrary and gives him a fair say. She explains that Elvis would often go behind his back and seek prescriptions from other physicians.

Hoedel is an admitted fan and deals with Elvis with respect, painting him as a decent, though flawed, human being. Some of the stories present him as a sad character, a shock considering he was a man who looked for much of his life vibrant, healthy and handsome and who was worshipped by many as a god. She consulted with scores of experts for medical explanations and tries her best to present them in the book with stripped-down and clarifying terminology.

Elvis may have left the building, but his story lives on. This book proves it.

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