'Destined To Die Young'

By Sally Hoedel

Book Review by Nigel Patterson, December 2020

Book Review

'Destined to Die Young' by Sally Hoedel

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, December 2020  

When many people think of Elvis, they think of self-destruction. Instead, look to see a man’s futile struggle to survive. (Sally Hoedel)

Why did Elvis die at the relatively young age of 42? What author-researcher, Sally Hoedel, has to say in her new book, Destined to Die Young, challenges commonly held views about Elvis’ death. The book details her exhaustive research and offers an engrossing and well-reasoned case answering the opening question. Her answer is one which, unlike other narrow interpretations of Elvis’ death, is holistic in nature, having regard to a number of factors, one of which is seminal to properly understanding Elvis’ life and death.

There are two other points to be made at the outset. The author does not sensationalise her subject matter, and due to the way her research was conducted, Destined to Die Young has a strong biographical element complementing its core purpose.

(Right: Sally Hoedel with Ron Strauss, pilot of the Lisa Marie)

Ms Hoedel has a strong and easy to read writing style. This is an advantage given that some of the book content is technical in nature. The narrative is full and colorful, and its depth of detail reflects the extent of research undertaken by the author.

In her introduction, the author establishes an important context for Elvis’ longevity (or lack of longevity) and health issues, this being his family tree – the union of his maternal grandparents, first cousins Robert Lee (Bob) Smith and Octavia (Doll) Smith. Their marital relationship meant rare genetic complications for Elvis; Hoedel commenting that its ‘consequences have long been ignored’. Essentially, faulty DNA was a key element in the life of both Elvis and his mother, Gladys.

Hoedel identifies the genetic disorder as Antitrypsin Deficiency, a condition which can result in lung and/or liver disease. In this respect, her discussion of the life and death of Gladys Presley is thought provoking, also informing the reader in depth of socio-cultural drivers and the excessive claims of advertising:

Gladys began to take diet pills. Dexedrine was the housewife drug of the day and it was given for anything from weight management to hormonal troubles, doing little to help uncover the actual source of the ailment and instead masking it.

The drug got its start during World War II to help soldiers stay awake, but by 1945, civilian use skyrocketed. “By the end of World War II, less than a decade after amphetamine tablets were introduced to medicine, over half a million civilians were using the drug psychiatrically or for weight loss....

It was during the 1950s, when advertising and competition drove consumption even higher. An original advertisement for Dexedrine read: “Stay Fit and Slim...taken daily enables you to slim while you do the housework – surely and safely.” It also professed: “This magic powder does more than disperse unwanted fat, it purifies and enriches the blood, it tones up the entire system and makes you feel better in health in every way.”

Dexedrine did not help with Gladys’ ever-increasing weight, and no one realized at the time that she was swollen with fluid more so than fat.

As to Gladys’ condition preceding her death:

Dr. Clarke remained perplexed by Gladys’ case until the end of his career. He often talked about it. He knew what was wrong with Gladys was not something he could properly diagnose at the time. “I do remember my daddy stating that he did not understand the condition of her liver when she had never taken a drink of alcohol in her entire life.” recalled his daughter Nancy Clarke Wilkerson. Another witness that spent time at Graceland and must have known his patient on some intimate level and yet Dr. Clarke believed Gladys to be a non-drinker, a non-drinker with severe liver disease. Consider too that his initial patient interview was done at the Audubon Drive house whereby most accounts confirm, she was not yet indulging in alcohol.

That Elvis also had liver and lung disease, as revealed by his autopsy results, is telling. Together with the immune system disorder, hypogammaglobulinemia, which plagued Elvis all his life and caused him to constantly fight various infections, Hoedel observes that Elvis’ lungs took a double whammy of exposure. Essentially:

.. his immune system was not creating the proper immune system response to an invader, but then his liver was also not making the proper proteins that would be sent to protect his lungs from toxins’.

Elvis was aware of how his health issues were similar to those of his mother. According to Memphis Mafia member, Lamar Fike:

Elvis had romanticised notions of meeting his demise exactly as his mother did.

It was like he missed her so much, he just became her.

In this context, Ms. Hoedel poses the important question:

Does it make more sense that Elvis manifested his health issues to be just like his mother or does the reality of them both having the same health issues from similar DNA make more sense?

After establishing the serious implications of Elvis’ genetic inheritance, the author uses the rest of her book to chronologically explore his health struggles. As noted earlier, she does not sensationalise Elvis’ drug taking – she maintains the persona of Elvis, but does not dehumanise him. This is not to say that Ms. Hoedel does not discuss his drug taking, but she validly frames it as a ‘back seat’ in order that the reader understand “why” Elvis took drugs in the first place. This should be noted by a number of posters on social media who have erroneously pre-judged the book.

Ms Hoedel clinically discusses the many health issues that afflicted Elvis – his “inherited” weak heart, reactive arthritis, and the impact of his nocturnal lifestyle, resulting in a lack of vitamin D, the effects of which contributed to respiratory infections, reduced immune function, and inflammation.

The effect of his conditions from birth will surprise, perhaps even disturb, some fans, as will Kathy Westmoreland’s description of his physical appearance unclothed:

“When I saw him in the nude…..he had skinny arms and legs,” she recalled. “His torso looked as if he’d swallowed a watermelon.”

Another key theme in Destined to Die Young is the 11 bodily systems that operate to keep us alive and hopefully healthy. Critically, Elvis suffered disease or disorder in nine of them! And five were present from birth and pre his fame. Ms Hoedel states:

His heart (circulatory system), his lungs (respiratory system), and his bowels (digestive/excretory systems) required medication. Insomnia affected his nervous system……His immune system was compromised. His urinary system was not functioning properly. “At one point there was even talk of dialysis….”

Hoedel’s consideration of Elvis’ health is also balanced and acknowledges that the discussion around his lifestyle and death has too often focused on his problem with prescription medication. As the author observes:

Often he is dismissed as just another rock ‘n’ roll drug addict.

Looking at the illnesses and disorders, that mounted upon each other over the decades, it’s no coincidence that Elvis’ prescription drug use increased as his health declined. From ear infections to chronic tonsilitis to recurrent flus to eye infections and glaucoma…..these arguably insignificant ailments independently, grew into something more. As his body broke down, alongside multiple immune system disorders and genetic complications, prescription medication and his handy PDR tried to fill the gaps. When that no longer worked, hospital stays became the norm and his list of ailments grew.

How serious the issue became is highlighted by a quote from prominent Memphis Mafia member, Sonny West:

“The last year of his life, drug addiction took a firm hold on him.”

Ms Hoedel’s response to that quote puts it into proper perspective:

Without a question it did – but more than eighty percent of Elvis’ bodily systems did not function properly…

The author takes the theme further:

Further consider that of those nine, five were directly impacted from disorders and diseases he had since birth and certainly prior to the prescription drug use that accompanied fame.

Destined to Die Young also discusses an issue often debated by Elvis fans – one that many readers will find more than interesting. During the 1970s, there were two doctors closely associated with Elvis. When he was in Vegas it was Dr. Elias Ghanem (“Dr. Feelgood). When in Memphis or on the road it was usually Dr. George Nichopoulos (“Dr. Nick). The author’s consideration of the relative function of both medical practitioners is not dissimilar to the viewpoint of many fans. Regarding Dr. Ghanem, she observes:

Dr. Ghanem’s habit of giving Elvis anything he wanted and even some drugs he did not ask for.

In relation to Dr. Nick’s response to finding out about some of the drugs Dr. Ghanem had prescribed for Elvis, these passages are instructive:

After the first show, Tish called Dr. Nick with concerns about the medical treatment Elvis was receiving and it wasn’t long before Colonel Parker called him as well. The Houston show was described as “depressingly incoherent” and the Colonel needed to do damage control.

Dr. Nick agreed to join the tour in Mobile, Alabama, and discovered that Dr. Ghanem had given Elvis a drug called Sparine (for depression), which not only caused his blood pressure to plummet but disrupted showtimes because it was a long-lasting drug. He also believed Elvis was given Donnatal, a combination drug for irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers, which again could not be given close to showtime because it impacted speech and motor function.

Dr. Nick was in doubt as to why Elvis was appearing to be incoherent on stage.

Destined to Die Young includes sections on Acknowledgments, 12 pages of (source) Notes and 12 pages of (bibliography) References. It contains 344 pages. ISBN: 978-1-7336526 (paperback). It can be purchased directly from the author (see link below).

Overall Verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed Destined to Die Young. Its mix of contextual Elvis biography and exploration of the disparate, but interlocking, factors contributing to his premature death are eruditely expressed by Sally Hoedel. The reader is engaged from the book’s opening paragraphs and led through a balanced examination of those causes. While there is necessarily some technical discussion, the book is still very accessible for non-technical readers. Destined to Die Young is not only an interesting and well-argued narrative, but also an important one due to its contribution to our understanding of the genetic forces that influenced Elvis’ life, and death.


The book can be purchased directly from the author:

Click here > Buy 'Destined to Die Young'

Click to comment on this Review

Read EIN's exclusive interview with author Sally Hoedel - See below-

Book Review by Nigel Patterson.
-Copyright EIN December 2020
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

About the author: Sally A. Hoedel, a lifelong Elvis fan and historian, has a journalism degree from Michigan State University and is co-owner of Character Development and Leadership, a curriculum business. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband and their four daughters.

“I wrote this book because I genuinely believe this is a story that Elvis would want known. He needed to be a strong American male while he was alive, and he hid his pain and his body’s weaknesses. Yet, he always knew he was just like everyone else: human. I believe he would be okay with everyone now understanding just how human he was. He struggled but he tried. My only hope for this labor of love is that it makes someone stop and think about Elvis just a little bit differently. He deserves it.”

Sally Hoedel (author of Destined to Die Young) talks to EIN: Elvis’ death at a young age could not have been prevented! Why did Elvis die so young?
This question is examined in Sally Hoedel’s new book, Destined to Die Young. Sally kindly agreed to take time out to speak with EIN’s Nigel Patterson about her research into the untold story of Elvis’ health struggles.
In her revealing interview, Sally discusses the key factors that affected Elvis’ life and health from pre-birth and how his lifestyle and overuse of prescription medication contributed to his premature death.
What Sally has to say challenges several commonly held beliefs about the causes of Elvis’ death!

 Read the interview to learn more...

(Interview, Source: ElvisInformationNetwork)

EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
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