Friday, January 29, 2010

The King and Dr. Nick

My mother was a great fan of Elvis Presley, and to this day I can’t hear his name – let alone his music – without remembering her. Her favorite book about him was written by his ex-wife Priscilla. That memoir didn’t really appeal to me, but I recently noticed another one from the point of view of Elvis’s personal doctor and requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Blogger program.

I was interested in learning more about both Elvis’s drug use and physical problems, and The King and Dr. Nick, by George Nichopoulos, certainly delivered. Some of these details can’t be made up. Apparently Elvis once took a week’s worth of medication in one day so that he could get well sooner. He also tried the “sleep diet”, where he was supposed to sleep for some time and wake up later, lighter. Unfortunately he had to take fluids intravenously during this nap, and the fluids were so high in sugar that he ended up gaining a few pounds.

So Dr Nichopoulos had an uphill task that – at first – consisted of damage control after Elvis’s hectic schedule, poor eating habits, fad diets and insomnia had had their way with his health.

I asked [the cooks] to reduce the starches and skillet-fried foods. They just stared back at me as if I were crazy. I got it. Elvis was their boss and they would cook what he told them to cook.

Then there was the drug use. As well as the medication that Dr Nichopoulos prescribed, Elvis received pills from other doctors, from a dentist and from his own sources. There wasn’t a lot of communication among Elvis’s entourage, let alone his doctors, about what he was taking.

After unearthing such a stash during one of Elvis’s hospital stays, Dr Nichopoulous dealt with it by substituting placebos for the actual medication. This strategy had the potential for critical backfire, since if a patient feels that a regular dose (which is actually a placebo) isn’t having an effect, he might try to step it up. Which would be fine if he took two placebos instead, but what if he bought actual pills from a pharmacist and took two of those?

Like others before him, Dr Nichopoulos was also sucked into the Elvis vortex. For all his generosity and kindness, the King demanded a lot of attention from his court, and his doctor had to be available to him on his terms. This meant that Dr Nichopoulos neglected his practice, and his partners ended up working overtime to take care of his other patients.

Elvis compensated with gifts of diamond rings and necklaces. Dr Nichopoulos’s recounting of all this is honest and direct, but his actions at the time weren’t what I’d look for in a health care professional. There are also some discrepancies between the accounts in this book and Priscilla Presley’s claims of Elvis’s use of both medication and recreational drugs in her book Elvis and Me.

Finally, after Elvis’s death, the Medical Board of Examiners took Dr Nichopoulos to task for overprescription of drugs. What killed Elvis Presley hasn't been conclusively proved – it may have been his existing medical problems, which included a family history of heart disease, it may have been the ten to fourteen drugs he was taking at the time, or it may have been a combination of the two. Either way, though, the Medical Board revoked Dr Nichopoulos’s license in 1995.

All along I’ve been looking at this from the point of view of someone studying to work in health care some day. But from another angle, the tragedy of Elvis Presley’s too-short life comes through clearly - especially the details of him struggling to perform several concerts in a week, with his health poised in the balance. Too much fame, too much pressure, too much charisma and control. And chemicals.


Mary Witzl said...

Poor Elvis. Huge fame is deadly enough on its own, but when you add extreme wealth to this, it is too much for someone with little willpower to cope with.

I hate to think what I'd be like with an entourage of fawning enablers and as many donuts as I could get my hands on.

I don't usually go for celebrity memoirs, but this is the sort of book I find hard to resist.

Marian said...

I agree, Mary. Being in a position where everyone agrees with you and does as you want... well, you know what they say about absolute power.

Add to that the fact that (like most entertainers) he was only as good as his last concert, film or album, and there was little to no chance of a happy ending.

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