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Rock Reads: "Destined to Die Young" - By Sally A. Hoedel


review by Kevin Wierzbicki

Unless you are a medical professional chances are you've never heard of Alpha-1. Also called Antitrypsin Deficiency, Alpha-1 is a genetic disorder, passed down the family tree, with all kinds of complications, particularly for the lungs and the liver. Hard to diagnose, the disease can cut a person's expected lifespan in half. And Elvis Presley, the King of Rock 'n' Roll, was a carrier of the disease.

Presley has often been cited as someone who had a voracious appetite for certain foods and prescription drugs, with these habits said to be contributing factors in his death. When it comes to food, Presley certainly packed away his share of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The drugs were not for kicks; they were to treat one ailment or another, many of which Presley had from a young age, like the severe constipation that haunted him his whole life. All of this is explained in "Destined to Die Young," and in the book's introduction author Hoedel points out that Presley had disease or disorder in nine of 11 bodily systems, five of which were with him from birth. So what she asks the reader to do is set aside Presley's gluttony and addiction and any preconceived notions about the star, instead considering how his compromised DNA led to his early death at the age of 42.

It should be mentioned that "Destined to Die Young" does not read like a medical journal; it is entertaining and very well done in the telling of Presley's story. Hoedel begins her story by delving into the lives of Presley's ancestors, noting their environs and their medical histories; after all Alpha-1 and other diseases are passed from generation to generation. Hoedel's research goes back a ways, but suffice it to say here that Elvis's mom Gladys had many of the same maladies that her son did. Many who will read this book are likely familiar with Presley's basic story and the highlights of his career, but it is necessary, in order for Hoedel to show the progression of illness, to cover those topics here. So after the first chapter about relatives, Presley's story is told from his birth in a tiny shotgun house in Tupelo, through an impoverished upbringing on to the blossoming of musical talent and the exploitation of which that followed. Readers will visit Graceland, follow Presley's time in the Army, hear his feelings about his time in the movies, meet and hear commentary from surviving studio sidemen and hear about marriage to Priscilla and a long Vegas stint.

Thorough but concise, "Destined to Die Young" is Presley's life in a nutshell. In the telling Hoedel makes an excellent case for how illnesses kept piling on until Elvis's body was just ready to give out. Hoedel simply presents facts in her coverage of Elvis's time being tended to by the infamous Dr. Nick, the man who gave Presley treatment that included heavy drugs and who is often portrayed as a villain. We are now decades removed from Presley's 1977 death but interest in his music and life story are only slightly waning. For the millions who care, it would be nice if they knew the whole story. "Destined to Die Young" is a step in that direction.

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