Zachary Holten, 22, of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, dons his Elvis costume, steps out of his bedroom, a shrine to Presley, and strums clumsily on his guitar strings, mumbling barely audible lyrics to “Hound Dog,” thinking he is The King himself. Holten has Down Syndrome, yet he is blissfully unaware that he is different from any other of the guests at his mom’s dinner party as they watch with uncertain smiles on their faces.
Down Syndrome is one of the most common genetic mutations. The scientific name for Down Syndrome is Trisomy 21; it is caused by the 21st chromosome being unable to separate properly. The disorder was once referred to as Mongoloids since the features of patients resembled the features of those from Mongolia, but the term was dropped in the 1960s after it was considered to be an ethnic insult. The most common effects are narrow eyes, a protruding tongue, an overall softer body shape, and mental retardation. Those with Down’s also struggle with hand-eye coordination.
Holten has never been able to ride a bike. He never had the thrill of getting his driver’s license on his sixteenth birthday, and he will never be able to live on his own. He will never get married. However, like many with Down Syndrome, he has found happiness through living vicariously through a famous figure.
“If I could have a second life in which I could choose to be anyone, I would be Zach,” said Kathy Holten, Zachary’s mother. “He is always so happy.”
It is not uncommon for Down Syndrome patients to take a liking for a character that is fictional, historical, or otherwise glorified in society. Zachary has grown full sideburns and dies his hair black and has an arsenal of Presley costumes, from huge belt buckles to glittery Vegas styles to Western wear. Danny, another patient of Down Syndrome, has developed an obsession for Dracula and speaks constantly of Transylvania, according to his uncle Edward Welsh. These intrigue in characters are not merely phases; they tend to stick with a person with Down’s for the majority of their life.
“Zach has always loved Elvis since he was a little boy, and I believe he always will,” said Kathy, who has taken her son on multiple trips to Graceland and plans on taking him to the Cirque de Soleil show “Viva Elvis!” in Las Vegas.
Kathy puts in a lot of time to ensure that Zach feels treasured. Besides from his genetic disorder, the Holten family has not been without hardship. In 2009, Kathy’s sister-in-law attempted to end her life by leaping from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida. Fortunately, the night she jumped, the members of the Coast Guard where running drills nearby and where able to rescue her from the water in time. And last year, Zachary’s father died to a heart condition that he had been battling for years while waiting on a transplant, leaving 64-year-old Kathy to raise Zachary on her own.
Kathy has continued to remain strong, knowing that when she passes Zachary will have no choice but to live in a home.
“Raising a child with Down Syndrome takes a lot of energy,” she says. “But he is my world.”
Kathy saw Zachary graduate from a special education program at his local high school and attend all the events, including prom. She faithfully supplies Zachary with new Elvis memorabilia for his collection and takes him on frequent trips to the local theme park Dollywood.
“I didn’t want Zach’s life to be all about medical attention, doctor appointments, and medication. I also want to make sure he has the fullest life he can,” said Kathy.