Tuesday, September 06, 2016

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES: "ELVIS PRESLEY – TBI Killed the King, not Drugs" by Earl Staggs

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.


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 earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net
He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.


Susan Oleksiw said...

I knew about Elvis's demise with drugs, etc., but I didn't realize it was concentrated within ten years or that he'd had head trauma. The story is sad no matter how we look at it. He had a wonderful voice, and could have gone on to explore more music and offer more to his fans.

Jan Christensen said...

This is fascinating. I hope it makes folks less judgmental of obese people.
There's no telling what the real cause of it is, and I'm sure eventually research will come up with more answers. - Jan, laughing at the click-bait headline

BPL Ref said...

Fascinating, to quote Jan (and Mr. Spock.) I always enjoy Mr. Staggs' columns and this one is especially good.

Kaye George said...

Wow! Great info. IF he's really dead, there's a lot of info here that's new to me. Thanks, Earl and Kevin.

Earl Staggs said...

You're right, Susan. It is very sad his life was cut short. I was a big fan (and still am). I often think of some of his songs when I hear the boy singers of today, who all have the same high-pitched voice and sound like girls.

Earl Staggs said...

I agree, Jan. Medical research has come up with some miraculous things, but I wish they could move faster. Click-bait headline? I like that, I think.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, BPL Ref, for the kind words. Best regards to you.

Earl Staggs said...

Maybe he's not dead, Kaye. There have been so many sightings of him over the years since his supposed death, you have to wonder.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Earl,

As always, a fascinating column. Elvis's death still draws controversy. There are so many people taking prescription drugs in lethal amounts including many performers. But Elvis's head trauma was news to me.

Caroline Clemmons said...

As usual, Earl, you unearthed new-to-me information. I really enjoyed the post. I wasn't a fan when I was a teenager, but became one soon after.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks for your comments, Jacqueline. It's sad that so many people get hooked. The only people who benefit are pharmaceutical companies, drug stores, and rehab centers. The stuff about TBI was news to me, too, but I think we're going to hear more about it in the future.

earlwstaggs said...

Caroline, I wasn't a fan in his early years either, but when he and his voice matured, he produced some incredibly good serious songs.

Radine said...


Susan said...

Earle, a wonderful post. I had never heard the theory of TBI, but your title drew me in. Of course, I thought it meant Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, never having heard of TBI meaning Traumatic Brain Injury. Lots of good information here, most of which I never knew. I am among the minority who believe Elvis really is dead. Those who 'see' him are mostly those who want to believe he is still alive, or they are seeing the myriad fans and imitators who do their best to become Elvis (for what reason I cannot fathom). RIP Elvis - you were a formidiable talent.

Earl Staggs said...

Radine,your "GOSH" pretty much sums it all up in one word. Nice going.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, I never heard of TBI as Traumatic Brain Injury either until recently. I think we're going to hear more about it from a number of football players who are plagued with mental and physical problems after their playing days. Boxers, too. Ali comes to mind. Elvis was indeed a formidable and remarkable entertainer. I don't know of anyone who is impersonated as much. That has to mean something.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

TBIs were first diagnosed during the first Gulf War. Over time the concept and the medical diagnosis has made it to the sports world, primary in football, mixed martial arts and boxing. But, it is also somewhat prevalent in auto racing, baseball, and has recently been recognized as an issue in soccer. Especially in women's soccer.

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

This was interesting. Elvis was "before my time" in that by the time he died, I was into Jethro Tull and Elton John (yes I know...don't say it, they are completely different). But I had no idea he weighed 350 pounds at death. Makes you want to give up PB and banana! Though on the TBI...that is interesting but I am thinking just another excuse for a guy who had it all and was allowed to toss it all away because he was surrounded by yes-men and sycophants. Stories like his are so common in music. Think about it...if Elvis had lived, would he have remained an icon? Maybe because he was a pioneer, but so was Buddy Holly and he is not nearly as revered (although he is revered by musicians, most "folks" probably don't give him a lot of thought). I think we tend to over-honour our musical dead. Jimmy Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Jim Morrison. Would they still be relevant or touring today at some sad sack casino? Or selling life insurance? I know, I'm jaded! But I once had a HUGE crush on David Cassidy. Enough said.

Earl Staggs said...

Judy, maybe fame is the worst disease of all. And I'm sorry things didn't work out for you and David.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Fame worse than...cancer? Oh, I don't think so.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

Follow-up thought. Think of what Elvis's age would be now, had he lived. At least leaving us, no matter how "too early," possibly saved him from being an old, wrinkled has-been with declining musical ability. My husband and I saw him at one of his early concerts in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He wore jeans and a nice shirt. Skinny. Very active on stage. The performance was at the fair grounds in a venue normally used for livestock shows. Place was packed, we were enchanted, and screamed along with the audience. We saw him again years later in the new, huge Tulsa Convention Center. He was much heavier, wearing exotic spangles, a shiny white suit. Still the same screaming audience, of course, but we thought back to the skinny kid and missed him. Judy Penz Shaluk reminded us of the possibilities, had he continued on.

Earl Staggs said...

Radine, you could absolutely have it right. I've known of boxers who fought too long, quarterbacks who played longer than they should have, actors who didn't know when to hang it up and rest on their laurels, and others in many fields of endeavor who thought they could escape the erosion of talent over time. Thoughts like "always leave them wanting more" and "quit when the quittin's good" come to mind." Please tell me, though, it doesn't happen to writers and we can go on forever. Please?