Glenn Frey: Life and Legacy with Chronic Illness

Steve Alexander

“Glenn Frey, Eagles co-founding member, dies at 67.”

It’s a headline that has garnered as much attention as it has surprise in the last 24 hours—especially considering the reports that many of Frey’s fans were unaware of just how serious his health issues were.

But just how did it happen? Rumors of Frey’s health battle began to surface last November, when The Eagles announced they would be unable to attend the Kennedy Center Honors to accept an award due to Frey’s health. In a statement, the band thanked the Kennedy Center for postponing their award for a year so Frey could be with them.

The statement also noted that Frey had a recurrence of “previous intestinal issues, which will require major surgery and a lengthy recovery period.”

The cause of Frey’s death, in a statement posted to the band’s website yesterday, was identified as pneumonia, rheumatoid arthritis and acute ulcerative colitis. According to rock singer Bob Seeger, a longtime friend, Frey had been in the hospital since November.

Frey had had a long history of serious digestive health problems, dating back to the 1980s when he missed a reunion concert with the band’s other co-founder and leader Don Henley due to an intestinal disorder. Also, an attempt to bring the band back together in 1990 had to be postponed because of surgery to remove a large part of Frey’s intestine.

At the same time, The Eagles manager, Irving Azoff, told The Wrap that Frey had been living with rheumatoid arthritis for more than 15 years.

Rheumatoid arthritis is one of many autoimmune diseases, which act on the body by mistakenly attacking healthy tissues and cells. RA tends to target the synovium tissue found within our joints, but may also attack the tendons, blood vessels and even internal organs. As the disease begins to erode cartilage, what was once healthy, functioning joint tissue becomes inflamed, painful, and in some cases, a deformity.

"Many doctors call RA a medical emergency, yet there is so little public awareness of the seriousness of this disease," writes Lene Anderson, author behind the award-winning rheumatoid arthritis blog, The Seated View. In her response to news of Frey's death, she calls for both awareness and research. "This disease can take so much," she adds, "and knowing that it can also take years off your life, can take the people you care about, is a difficult thing to accept."

Frey was also battling ulcerative colitis, another inflammatory disease affecting the bowel and large intestine. With no cure, patients may opt for bypass surgeries or medication in order to reduce or eliminate complications from painful ulcers and inflammation. Other symptoms of UC include abdominal pain, diarrhea, severe cramping, bleeding weight loss and chronic fatigue. One of the most prominent procedures with this disease involves removing part of the colon or intestine, and replacing with a pouch - known as a ‘j pouch’ for its shape. The procedure typically follows a severe infection from a hold in the intestine, rapid swelling due to toxicity, or severe bleeding. It is still unknown if Frey was undergoing this type of surgery.

During a past interview, Frey acknowledged that he had probably worsened his health with all his drinking and drug use during the band’s heyday during the 1970s.

The Eagles, in memory of Frey, posted on their website that in his last several weeks, “Glenn fought a courageous battle.” They continued:

“Words can neither describe our sorrow, nor our love and respect for all that he has given to us, his family, the music community & millions of fans worldwide.”

Fans across the globe may still be settling the shock, but Frey’s legacy will not be his symptoms, surgeries, or even the chronic illnesses themselves. Instead, they will be his lifelong list of achievements in music. Among them is his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a part of the Eagles in 1998, his six Grammy Awards and five American Music awards. His iconic compositions with the Eagles for hit shows like Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop. And his timeless chart-topping singles, including one many of us, Eagles fans or not, love to sing at the top of our lungs - "Hotel California."

Frey's story is one of many that show how a person does not have to be defined by a chronic condition. Leading a passionate life and doing what you love can lead you to accomplish great things, even when managing RA or UC.

Find out more about rheumatoid arthritis.

Watch an inspiring story of a young woman living with rheumatoid arthritis.

Find out more about ulcerative colitis.

Watch four stories about people living with ulcerative colitis.

(Image courtesy of Steve Alexander's Flickr Page - Creative Commons License)