Texas author Earl Staggs is back this month with his latest “History’s Rich With Mysteries” guest blog. This time he takes a look at the death of the legendary Elvis Presley.
HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES
When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.
ELVIS PRESLEY – TBI Killed the King, not Drugs
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother (Jesse Garon) died at birth. As a youth, during his time in the Army, and all through his early performing years, Elvis was active, healthy, and a bundle of energy.
On August 16, 1977, forty-two years old and known worldwide as the King of Rock and Roll, he collapsed on the bathroom floor of Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He was pronounced dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital at 3:36 p.m.
At the time of his death, Elvis weighed an estimated 350 pounds. He was practically bed-ridden and required permanent nursing care. His heart was enlarged to twice its normal size with evidence of cardiovascular disease. His lungs showed signs of emphysema even though he'd never smoked, and his bowel was twice the length of normal. In addition, he suffered from an immune disorder.
Three days later, the coroner issued a death certificate stating the cause of death as“hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease.” In plain English, a heart attack. Officially, the King had died of natural causes.
Since 1967, Elvis had been under the primary care of Dr. George Nichopoulos a well-known doctor to celebrities. Then, Elvis was 32 and weighed 163 pounds. His only known medical ailment was slightly high blood pressure, presumably due to his high-fat diet. That same year, however, he began to experience progressive chronic pain throughout his body, insomnia, hypertension, lethargy, irrational behavior, and weight gain. Over the next few years, he was hospitalized several times and began self-medicating with an assortment of drugs.
Doctor Nick, as Nichopoulos was called, remained Elvis’s personal physician till the end and was present at the death scene as well as during the autopsy. He concurred with the coroner’s conclusion that the cause of death was a natural cardiac event.
When the toxicology report was released, however, everything changed. The report said:
“Diazepam, methaqualone, phenobarbital, ethchlorvynol, and ethinamate are below or within their respective ranges. Codeine was present at a level approximately 10 times those concentrations found therapeutically. In view of the polypharmacy aspects, this case must be looked at in terms of the cumulative pharmacological effect of the drugs identified by the report.”
Because the tox report appeared to contradict the autopsy report’s stated cardiac cause of death, a prominent toxicologist was asked to review the findings. In his opinion:
“. . .all this information points to a conclusion that, whatever tolerance the deceased may have acquired to the many drugs found in his system, the strong probability is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”
As a result, the Tennessee Board of Health began an investigation which resulted in Dr. Nick being criminally charged with murder because he had been the main physician prescribing medications to Elvis. Evidence showed that during the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’s death, Doctor Nick wrote prescriptions for him for more than 8,800 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. The drugs included uppers, downers, and powerful painkillers such as Dilaudid, Quaalude, Percodan, Demerol, and Cocaine Hydrochloride in quantities more appropriate for those terminally ill with cancer.
The trial of Dr. Nick was not intended to settle the cause of death, but whether he treated Elvis with "good faith."
Dr. Nick's defense was that Elvis was addicted to pain killers, so he prescribed medications to keep him away from dangerous street drugs, thereby controlling the addiction. If he found street drugs in Elvis's house or on tours, he destroyed them. He tried to prescribe the least harmful drugs while keeping Elvis functional and substituted placebos when he could. He tried to get Elvis to enter a chemical dependency treatment unit, but he always refused.
The State retained the former coroner of Miami-Dade County, Florida, Joseph Davis, MD, who had done thousands of autopsies. He rendered the opinion that Elvis Presley died of a heart attack, which settled the public controversy. His conclusion was:
"The position of Elvis Presley's body was such that he was about to sit down on the commode when the seizure occurred. He pitched forward onto the carpet, his rear in the air, and was dead by the time he hit the floor. If it had been a drug overdose, he would have slipped into an increasing state of slumber. He would have pulled up his pajama bottoms and crawled to the door to seek help. It takes hours to die from drugs."
In addition, Dr. Davis noted that Elvis was grossly obese, more than 50 lbs of which were gained in the last few months, which put an enormous strain on his heart. There was no pulmonary edema, a sign of drug overdose. It was established that Elvis obtained codeine pills from a dentist the day before his death and Doctor Nick had no knowledge of it.
One of the defense witnesses was Dr. Forest Torrent, a prominent California physician and a pioneer in the use of opiates in pain treatment, who presented a concept few people had even heard of.
Dr. Torrent was intrigued by the sudden change in Elvis since 1967. He discovered that during that year, while filming the movie “Clambake,” Elvis tripped over an electrical cord, fell, and cracked his head on the edge of a porcelain bathtub. He was knocked unconscious and had to be hospitalized. Dr. Torrent found three other incidents where Elvis suffered head blows and suspected he suffered from what’s now known as Traumatic Brain Injury—TBI. That’s what caused the progressive ailments which had to be treated with powerful painkillers, which weakened his heart and other organs, and eventually led to his death.
TBI may not only produce pain in the form of headaches but also spine, joint, and muscular pain. TBI patients are often misdiagnosed as having "fibromyalgia."
Dr. Torrent believed that Elvis’s bathtub head injury in 1967 was so severe it caused brain tissue to be jarred loose and leak into his general blood circulation. This is now known to be a leading cause of autoimmune disorder which causes a breakdown of organs. TBI causes bizarre behaviors such as reclusivity, obsessive-compulsive habits, paranoia, hostility, peculiar sex habits, and poor hygiene, among others. Side effects are chronic pain, irrational behavior, severe bodily changes such as obesity, and enlarged organs like hearts and bowels. Elvis exhibited all these symptoms and more. He also experienced progressive headaches and lumbar spine pain between 1967 and his death in 1977. X-rays of his lumbar spine showed a disc protrusion at L4.
TBI was unknown during Elvis' lifetime. Today, it is a recognized health issue in professional contact sports, particularly in boxing and football.
Doctor Nick was absolved of negligence in directly causing Elvis Presley’s death. Shortly thereafter, however, the district attorney general's office brought a criminal indictment against him for willfully and feloniously prescribing controlled substances to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others. He was found guilty.
With a change in mental state and suffering chronic pain and failure of body functions due to TBI, Elvis Presley entered a ten-year spiral towards death. He became addicted to pain killers to offset the pain raging through his body as well as other ailments and practiced an unhealthy diet and lethargic lifestyle. This led to early coronary vascular disease and, combined with his escalating weight and pill consumption, Elvis was a heart attack ready to happen.
If Dr. Tennant is right about Traumatic Brain Injury, and if it had been diagnosed and treated early enough in his life, Elvis might not have been driven to the drug usage which affected him so drastically both emotionally and physically. He might have continued performing for many more years and treating us to his inimitable and dynamic form of entertainment.
I, for one, wish that had been the case.
Earl Staggs ©2016
Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.
He invites any comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.