scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Alex Beam

Could hip surgery have saved Tom Petty and Prince?

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in Miami, on Feb. 4, 2007. He died on April 21, 2016, from what was described as an accidental drug overdose.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

It’s possible that Bill Harris could have saved Tom Petty’s life, and Prince’s too. But they didn’t ask him.

Wait a minute. . . . What does a retired Harvard Medical School professor have to do with the titans of rock and roll? Let me explain.

Tom Petty died of an accidental drug overdose last year. An autopsy found three kinds of fentanyl and oxycodone in his system, all of them powerful and addictive painkillers. His wife and daughter revealed that Petty had been performing tour dates — 53 of them — with a fractured hip.


“Despite this painful injury he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury,” Dana Petty and Adria Petty said in a statement. “On the day he died he was informed his hip had graduated to a full-on break, and it is our feeling that the pain was simply unbearable and was the cause for his over use of medication.”

In an article for STAT, Dr. Lipi Roy, an addiction specialist in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote, “Although surgical repair or replacement may have provided relief, a major operation would have put him out of commission for a minimum of four to eight weeks — not the ideal option for Petty.” Roy added that Petty had a history of depression and substance abuse, so it might be too speculative to ascribe his death to his agonizing hip pain.

But let’s speculate. This is a ghoulish subject that I’ve been monitoring for some time. Prince, who likewise died of a drug overdose in 2016, was a short (5 feet 3 inches) man who performed his energetic stage routine in tall platform shoes. As early as 2001, he began to complain of “shooting pains in his left hip, compounded by soreness in his ankles.”


Corrective hip surgery might have erased the terrible pain, but Prince had become a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion that abjures surgical interventions.

Which brings us to Dr. William Harris, professor emeritus at the Harvard Medical School, the Bill Harris of “Nan and Bill Harris Studios,” from which you might occasionally hear WGBH radio broadcasts. Harris has spent the better part of his 91-year lifetime practicing hip surgery, and has seen it evolve from a risky procedure to a relatively routine operation.

“In the early days, it was a very dangerous operation,” recalled Harris, who is promoting his new book, “Vanishing Bone: Conquering a Stealth Disease Caused by Total Hip Replacements.” “One out of every 50 elderly patients died of a pulmonary embolism, and there was a terrible problem with bone wear that revealed itself after a few years. Dreaded infections, which require that the surgery be repeated, occurred in 10 percent of all cases.

In his 50 years of practice, much has changed. Infection rates are down to 0.5 percent, even lower at elite hospitals such as the New England Baptist. Two-to-three-week long hospitalizations have been cut to two to three days, and many patients are walking unaided just a few weeks after surgery.

I ran my Tom-Petty-and-Prince-might-have-lived scenario past Harris, who deemed it plausible. “There are people who are inappropriately fearful of surgery,” he said, “and the best surgeons carry those people through.” Furthermore, “There is the suggestion that the replacement will last only 10 years, and we need to reeducate the patient base.”


Harris thinks hip replacements last longer than people realize — “Most people should never have to have more than one operation” — but acknowledges that the flesh-and-bone hip is still sturdier than the titanium-and-polyethylene replacement that he helped invent.

“What does God know that you don’t know?” I asked.

Harris, chuckling: “A lot.”

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Imalexbeamyrnot.