This interview with Dr. Forest Tennant was originally published by Pain News Network and is being reprinted here with permission from the editor. This post contains affiliate links.
A note to my regular readers: This interview is different than my usual work here on FedUpWithFatigue.com since it has absolutely nothing to do with fibromyalgia or Lyme disease. However, I thought some of you may be interested in reading my interview with Dr. Tennant since I have many older readers who are familiar with Howard Hughes and the events of his life. I’ll return to my regular content later this week. 🙂
During much of the 20th century, Howard Hughes was known as a risk-taking aviator, award-winning filmmaker and playboy to Hollywood starlets, but there was another side of his life that only his physicians and those closest to him knew.
There was actually a medical reason behind Hughes’ odd, daredevil personality!
He lived with obsessive-compulsive disorder for most of his life, and that condition likely contributed to him sustaining multiple traumatic brain injuries and ultimately developing intractable pain syndrome in his later years.
During the 1950s, when Hughes disappeared from public life, most people believed his reclusive lifestyle was due to his eccentric personality when in fact he was so debilitated by chronic pain that he was mostly housebound.
Dr. Forest Tennant, a retired physician who specialized in addiction and pain medicine for most of his medical career, has investigated Hughes’ medical history for nearly 50 years. In 1978, Tennant testified as an expert medical witness in a lawsuit related to the cause of Hughes’ death. Now, more than 40 years later, Tennant has chronicled Hughes’ fascinating medical history in a new book entitled, “The Strange Medical Saga of Howard Hughes.”
Pain News Network contributor Donna Gregory Burch recently talked with Tennant about his book. We hope you enjoy this long-form interview.
Pain News Network: During the 1970s, you were an expert witness during a lawsuit related to the cause of Howard Hughes’ death. What inspired you to write “The Strange Medical Saga of Howard Hughes” now?
Dr. Forest Tennant: We did not know, from a medical point of view, what happened to Howard Hughes because we didn’t understand his injuries. We knew that he was ill. We knew he was sick. We knew he was a recluse. He had all these different problems, but we really didn’t know what had happened to him. We didn’t understand intractable pain syndrome and traumatic brain injury until just in recent years.
The second reason why I’ve chosen now to write it is that it’s dawned on me that I have all this information, and I now have the time to do it and the interest. A few years ago I wrote a small paper about Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley and John Kennedy and some of the famous people who had pain problems, and it was such a hit that I decided to take what I know before I pass on and get it down and write it so it will be kept for posterity.
I’ve come to realize that some of these famous people [like Hughes] have these … [what we call] strange medical sagas. Bizarre medical histories should be put down as history and cataloged as history for the future.
[There’s a] third reason why I decided to write [this book] now. I think everybody who has one of these conditions ought to read [about] their history.
Why do you think it’s a good idea for people with traumatic brain injury, intractable pain syndrome or obsessive compulsive disorder to read your book?
First off, it’ll give you hope. I think one needs to understand that there was a man who suffered terribly and was able to function and perform beyond any human expectation despite being terribly ill.
I think that’s a point that’s gotten lost in all the glamour and the money and the politics of the day. People forget that sometimes somebody who’s terribly ill, has pain and suffering, but still wants to contribute can do it.
Howard Hughes had the money to hire the best [physicians]. He got the best medical care there was. People [today] think in terms of one drug for this illness, one vaccine for this virus [but physicians back then] just didn’t prescribe medicines or give a shot. They were real doctors who did a lot of different things to help people survive to the maximum that their diseases would allow, and I think that this is very important for people to understand.
And Howard Hughes, you just couldn’t find a better story or a person who survived against all odds. After about 10 years [following his plane crash in 1946], here was a man who could hardly be in the public. He’s in pain. He can’t even cut his fingernails or comb his hair half the time because it hurts too bad. He obviously can’t have a marital life. His sex life is gone. He can’t work normally.
Yet he decides … in 1966, at age 60, to change his career. He decides he’s going to give up aircrafting and making drones and financing all that stuff and move to Las Vegas and go into creating a new Las Vegas, which exists to this day. For someone at his age to do that, and as sick as he was, is amazing.
Even though he was amazingly successful throughout his life, how debilitated do you think he was as a result of living with traumatic brain injury, intractable pain syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder?
He had five airplane crashes and survived. They say cats have nine lives. I think I said in [the book that] Howard Hughes must have been a buddy of those cats.
About 10 years after his last crash, he was … homebound or bedbound and in palliative care. He also got to the point where he couldn’t walk after his hip surgery, so he was quite debilitated. People think that he was just a recluse because he was a nutty character, but after about age 55, he was really not very capable of showing up in the public, and he didn’t. People that I have treated, and I’ve treated many who are about as sick as he was, they all are homebound or bedbound. They’re not interested in going out to a lot of social events or even shopping. They’re pretty reclusive.
In his case, he could afford a luxury suite in a hotel with the best doctors and aides. Somebody wrote a book and said, “Howard must have been very miserable and sad and alone.” This guy had people around him right up to the day he died and the best hotels, the best food and everything. A lot of people would trade their nursing home for what he had!
That’s definitely a different way of looking at him. Most of the general public just thinks he was eccentric but that’s not why he was a recluse, was it? It was actually because he was living with severe chronic pain.
Another thing, in those years, there was no treatment for these things. Nobody knew how to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. Incidentally, he started taking valium when it came on the market. His doctors prescribed it to him in about 1962 or 63. He actually started to function much better.
But again, he’s having to take codeine every couple of hours. He takes valium. He overuses medicines at times, but he was also legitimately sick with his traumatic brain injury, his obsessive-compulsive disorder and his intractable pain syndrome. He had three terrible conditions which, at the time of his life, no one knew how to treat any one of the three.
He was obviously very, very wealthy, and he was able to afford the best doctors in the world, but I think it’s interesting, and this happens even today, that even if you have all of the money in the world, sometimes the best doctors still can’t get you well. This was the case for him, wasn’t it?
Oh, absolutely. They were the very best doctors that Los Angeles had to offer. They were highly qualified. Incidentally, I’m the last person to probably ever talk to his last three doctors, the three doctors that were caring for him when he died. I got a chance to meet all of them and talk with every one of them, and these were first-class doctors.
They just told me they knew two things about his case. They knew that he had a strange medical condition. They knew that he was different but they didn’t know why. So fundamentally, they were treating symptoms as they came up with Hughes.
They did a good job of treating what they knew and what they could do. It’s always great to sit here 30 years later and say, “Oh, the doctors should’ve done this and done that,” but you’d better ask the question was that medicine or that procedure even known at the time? And, in Hughes’ case, it just wasn’t.
How would his treatment differ today?
Oh, dramatically. I am sure that he would’ve been put on medicine to control his obsessive-compulsive disorder, probably in his teens or in his 20s. It was his obsessive-compulsive disorder that was his undoing. In 1929, he was done making this film, “Hell’s Angels,” and you’ll see it in the book [that] he decides to fly this scout plane. All the experts told him, “Don’t fly that plane under 200 feet above the ground [because] it’s going to crash.” Well, [with] his obsessive-compulsive disorder, [his viewpoint] was, “You can’t tell me what to do. I know everything.” So he goes ahead and does it, and sure enough he crashes and has head trauma. After that, he was never the same.
But I think as bad of obsessive-compulsive disorder as he had, today I am sure that he would’ve gotten into the hands of a good psychiatrist or a good neurologist or even internists today and [would have been] put on some of the medications that are available for that condition. [If that had happened], he may never have had all those head traumas. You’ll see in the book how many traumatic instances this guy had.
The medications that he was given, the codeine for intractable pain syndrome, is not a very good medication. Of course, back then, there was no such knowledge on intractable pain. There was no such knowledge of long-acting versus short-acting opioids or neuropathic agents, to say nothing of other new drugs we’re using. So it would’ve been a whole different situation.
My hope is when doctors read [the book], they would understand that Howard Hughes would not have to end up like he did with today’s treatment. I think that’s one of the bottom lines, medically, of his history. You don’t have to end up like Howard Hughes because we have the technology to take care of it.
And also, modern medicine is highly criticized, like practically everything today, but so many advances have been made in the last generation or two that you don’t have to see what happened to Hughes. He would have gotten treatments that would be quite different. I think that the medical profession and even the pharmaceutical profession can give themselves a little pat on the back after you read about these cases because we have things that we can do now.
So he may not have ended up with the traumatic brain injuries and the intractable pain syndrome if his obsessive-compulsive disorder was properly treated back then?
Absolutely. That was his undoing. It’s kind of harmless to see somebody putting their peas in a straight line or compulsive hand washing and that type of thing but the bad part of it is you lose your ability to do rational thinking. That’s what got him into trouble. His total lack of following protocol in 1946 is what gave him that terrible crash that put him into intractable pain syndrome and reclusivity.
He had all this engineering genius, but he just made terrible, irrational decisions at times, like flying that airplane when all the best pilots in the country told him, “Don’t do it. That plane won’t make it.” But he wouldn’t take advice.
So those are the kinds of things that get people into traumatic brain injuries. Then, when you get traumatic brain injury, you’re even more impaired mentally.
Some of the things this guy did were just unbelievable. Crazy things like he only had 30 minutes of gas, but he tried to fly it 40 minutes. They weren’t supposed to fly with the wheels up, so he put them up. There’s a whole list of things he wasn’t supposed to do that he did, and that’s not normal mentally. He wasn’t just eccentric. He really was mentally impaired. I’m surprised somebody hadn’t shot him or [that he hadn’t] done himself in.
His behavior actually got better after he got on his medication for his pain. His codeine and his valium seemed to control his bad behavior to some extent.
How did people’s opinions of opioids differ back then compared to now?
Back then, Dr. [Verne] Mason, [one of Hughes’ doctors] told the press one time in about 1947 or so, “Yeah, we give him the codeine because he’s in pain and needs them.”
That was the end of the discussion.
In other words, when I got into this business in the 1970s after Vietnam, we didn’t have all this controversy [about prescribing opioids]. The emotionalism, the condemnations of both physicians and patients, the hysteria of opioids, this is new in society. There wasn’t near that kind of stigma back in Howard Hughes’ day.
Sounds like things were much easier back then.
Much simpler and much better. We did much better pain treatment for many severe cases in the 1970s and 1980s than we do today.
Today, everybody has an opinion, and nobody agrees.
I’m kind of hoping that when people read about these famous people who all took narcotics for pain that maybe the patients won’t feel so bad. Maybe the doctors will also see something. It’s probably Pollyanna-ish thinking but I would hope the history of these famous people who Americans revere might bring a little tranquility and some common sense to the use of opioids. We’re still going to need them. We can’t get along without them. We’re certainly decreasing use of opioids for good reason. We’re getting alternatives for a lot of patients but they’re still going to be needed for some people.
“The Strange Medical Saga of Howard Hughes” is available for purchase on Amazon.com and at other booksellers. In the future, Dr. Tennant plans to release the strange medical sagas of John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Doc Holliday.