“I have never been ‘strung-out’ in my life except on music.”-Elvis Aaron Presley
“That Elvis Presley was ‘cold down pretty’…he was the cold down prettiest man I ever did see!” -Quote from longtime patient- Mrs. Mable Rogers of Ripley, age 98
Last year on Aug.16, 2017, the “North Mississippi Daily Journal” carried the headline “REMEMBERING THE KING,” a story which paid homage to that 40th anniversary of the shocking premature death of one of northeast Mississippi’s favorite native sons, Elvis Presley. Elvis was a superstar so famous he didn’t need a last name, an icon so alive during his 42 years that some people are insistent that he still is.
Elvis was heart-poundingly beautiful. He was heart-achingly talented and charismatic. Sadly, he was apparently also heart-breakingly gullible. According to his biographical information, his high school tested I.Q. was 70 which placed him in the ‘moderately impaired cognition’ category. But, like the fictional Forrest Gump, he possessed miraculous gifts and abilities, a generous heart of gold and an amazing amount of luck. Although his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker took extreme financial advantage of Presley (by taking half of all his earnings), he propelled him from a life of poor white trash to millionaire in one year. It seems Elvis was not prepared for what such rapid success would mean in his life and the deadly excesses it would soon foster.
At Elvis’ sudden passing, the Shelby County medical examiner listed his cause of death to be “coronary arrhythmia resulting from hypertensive heart disease.” Later toxicology results rightly fueled speculation of the role prescription drug abuse had played in his demise. There were about 14 different prescription drugs, “uppers, downers, and all arounders” in Elvis’ post-mortem blood sample. It showed ‘significant’ levels of Codeine, Ethinamate (a sedative), Quaaludes and barbiturates. Lesser amounts of Morphine, Demerol, Placidyl (a sleeping pill), Valium and antihistamines were found. But who gave him these dangerous drug combinations and why?
Here then is our subject of discussion, Elvis’ long time personal physician Dr. George Nichopoulos. Elvis and Dr. Nick met 50 years ago now on a Sunday afternoon in 1967 at Elvis’ Circle G Ranch in Horn Lake. Nichopoulos was taking calls that day for another physician who had been treating Elvis and the doctor was summoned to Elvis’ DeSoto country home to treat his complaint of severe saddle soreness from too much horseback riding the previous day. At the time, Dr. Nichopoulos belonged to a well-respected east Memphis internal medicine group with five other physicians. This proved to be a life-changing house call for the doctor, a professional segue that ultimately destroyed his career.
From this encounter, Nichopoulos and Elvis struck up a close relationship and for the next 10 years Dr. Nick was his ‘go to’ man for every real or perceived ailment. When Elvis returned home to Graceland permanently in 1970, Dr. Nick became something more than just his primary care physician. Dr. Nick told investigative reporter Gerald Posner that “at times I was his father, his best friend and his doctor. Whatever role I needed to play at the time, I did.” Dr. Nick quit his day job to become the full time physician for Elvis and his entourage who were dubbed the “Memphis Mafia.”
Presley had since the 60s already become dependent on a daily cocktail of amphetamines (an effort to maintain his weight and to keep him going during his punishing touring schedule), sedatives to treat the insomnia caused by the stimulants, and narcotics to treat his gyration induced joint pains. He spent a great deal of time either personally seeking drugs or having his close friends obtain them for him. Presley didn’t touch a drop of alcohol or illicit drugs but believed that if a physician prescribed the many meds he took that there was nothing to fear. There is no way to know how many doctors in Memphis he had sought out for treatment prior to George Nichopoulos becoming his official full time “Dr. Feelgood.”
The rapport and true affection between the silver-haired doctor and patient was instant, and Nichopoulos was apparently unable to say ‘no’ to any of Elvis’ requests. In multiple later interviews after Presley’s death, Dr. Nick said “Elvis was a firm believer that there was a medicine for everything…He was always childlike with these things… I don’t think he ever realized how harmful these things could be to him… Elvis was convinced he needed these drugs.” Nichopoulos observed that “If he had a scratchy throat, he wanted penicillin tablets. I would give him 20 and tell him to take four a day.” Then, Elvis would take the entire prescription in two days because he believed he would get well faster.
Nichopoulos freely admitted that Elvis’ consumption of numerous medications was dangerous, but could never bring himself to simply stop enabling him. He claims that he tried several times to cure Presley of his addictions and even manufactured placebo capsules for him in an effort to curtail his abuse, but to no avail.
Three years after Elvis’ death in 1980, the finger of blame was pointed at Dr. Nick. He was indicted on 14 counts of “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously” prescribing a cornucopia of narcotics, amphetamines, and sedatives to Presley in the months prior to his death. He persisted that he had prescribed only two of the drugs in Presley’s system at the time of his death. At that time, Nichopoulos was found ‘not guilty’ of the charges of unethical conduct, but the medical board suspended his license for three months and put him on probation for three years. The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners permanently suspended his license 15 years later in 1995, stating that he had been overprescribing to numerous patients for decades.
Dr. Nick appealed to the board admitting that he had overprescribed medications to Elvis, but had thought they were for his entire family, his band, production crew and all his employees. In 1977 alone, it is documented that he wrote more than 10,000 doses of meds for Elvis including opiates, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquilizers, some various injectable drugs, antihistamines, anti-hypertensives, steroids, hormones and laxatives. He speculated in his memoir, “The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me,” that Presley’s medical problems, not his drug addiction, were to blame for his death. He listed diabetes, glaucoma, obesity (350 pounds), migraines, allergies, adrenal insufficiency and arthritis as factors, but theorized that his actual cause of death was a toxic megacolon in light of his death on the toilet while attempting to have a bowel movement. He had in the past been treated multiple times for obstipation (a complete inability to pass solid waste) at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. This chronic severe constipation was of course opiate induced.
Stripped of his medical license and unable to make a living as a practicing physician, Dr. Nick worked for a time as a road manager for Jerry Lee Lewis, and as a disability claims consultant for Federal Express. Nichopoulos actually even had his own traveling road tour for a while. I was able to meet Dr. Nick and view his “Memories of Elvis” exhibition at a medical conference held at one of the Tunica casinos several years ago. I regretfully cannot recall which pharmaceutical company sponsored him, but remember that his exhibit included a good deal of Elvis memorabilia collected during his 10 years with him, and his own medical bag which contained empty Dilaudid prescription bottles with Elvis’ name on the labels. Ultimately his exhibit was deemed in poor taste and his tour ended after a few Las Vegas Casino showings.
Elvis was not the first superstar to die as a result of his addictions and excesses. Where do you go after you reach the pinnacle of a fantastic career? Some people cannot deal with the emotional pain that is a side-effect of mega-stardom. Can you think how physically punishing it must be for a middle aged man to try to keep his aging body doing impossible dance moves night after night? Multi-millionaire celebrities have the money to buy whatever services they can imagine, and yes, can also ‘buy’ the people capable of providing them. Think of other recent similar horrible and unnecessary deaths that have been aided by Doctor Feelgoods…Michael Jackson died while his personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, had him hooked up to a propofol drip with several other heavy prescription drugs present in his system. Prince died primarily from fentanyl, but also had countless other narcotics in his home, bottles written in the names of other patients, and prescribed by at least nine medical practitioners. George Nichopoulos knew that if Elvis wasn’t getting what he wanted from him, he would get it elsewhere as he had done before. Dr. Nick truly at some level felt that he was protecting Elvis from his personal demons. There is no doubt they felt a deep brotherly love for each other, but a great portion of their relationship was based on co-dependency.
Until his own death in Memphis in February of 2016 at age 88, Dr. Nick denied being Elvis’ “Doctor Feelgood” or bearing any blame for his untimely demise. He lamented that “They always wanted a scapegoat for Elvis’ death. They never stopped going after me….I just cared too much.”