November 12, 1999

Series: Leap from medicine to Senate a natural for Frist

Featured Image

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, M.D.

Series: Leap from medicine to Senate a natural for Frist

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist doesn't understand those who are surprised at his transition from transplant surgeon to a member of the United States Congress. To the former full- time faculty member, there's not much difference.

"At Vanderbilt I was one physician taking care of one patient at a time," Frist said during a recent interview in his senate office in the Russell Senate Office Building next door to the Capitol. Other inhabitants of the building have "senator" after their names on the gigantic doorways. Frist opted for "M.D."

"Many people asked when I put my medical career on hold how in the world I could jump to becoming a U.S. Senator, in what they saw as two totally different worlds," he said. "In my own eyes, they're both about public service — one treating the health of an individual; one treating the health of a nation. To me it's not very different."

At Vanderbilt, Frist was a full-time faculty member from 1986-1994, founding and directing the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. He performed more than 200 heart and lung transplant procedures, including the first lung transplant and first pediatric heart transplant in Tennessee and the first successful combined heart-lung transplant in the south.

He continues to keep in touch with more than 100 transplant patients. They all receive birthday notes from Frist on the anniversary of their transplant.

Frist now prides himself on being the only physician elected to the U.S. Senate since 1928, a fact that he believes is a return to the legislative bodies of the past where most senators were citizen legislators instead of lifetime politicians.

But being a physician is still a priority.

On the day of this interview he called in a prescription for a patient. In his outer office, on the "Distinguished Tennesseans Wall" a black and white photograph of Frist in scrubs is surrounded by other well-known Tennesseans including Minnie Pearl and Loretta Lynn.

Many weekends, he volunteers in free clinics both in Washington and in Tennessee. In 1998, he served as a member of a weeklong medical mission group to war-torn Sudan. Frist participated in the trip, sponsored by an international relief organization, because he is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its subcommittee on Africa.

After landing, 45 minutes away from the nearest front, the group traveled to six mission hospitals and several schools in Kenya, Sudan and Congo. Treating patients, many of whom had walked 100 miles to receive treatment, was an eye-opening experience for the Princeton and Harvard Medical School-educated Frist.

"I benefit greatly from trips like the one to Sudan," he said. "I get to go and deliver care individually to people who might not otherwise receive that care. I operate, treat medical problems and diagnose. But it also opens doors for me. In Africa last year I operated in hospitals without running water or lights and delivered care to people who have not had care in 18 years because of the civil war. I was able to observe all that, then come back to the floor of the U.S. Senate and within two months pass a resolution that addressed the issue of foreign policy toward southern Sudan. It was an issue I was totally unaware of and probably would have been unaware of if I hadn't gone into that part of the world as a physician."

Frist said he has learned much about what health care issues people are most interested in from the trips.

"When I put on my doctor's hat and go into hospitals and clinics, I get to interact with real people and look at the type of health care they're receiving. We talk about the challenges they see in their health care systems and that gives me a picture window that other U.S. Senators don't have."

He also has received news coverage for two events in which he resumed his role of physician.

In 1995, about six months into office, a man from Cleveland, Tenn., nearly died in a Senate building hallway after an episode of ventricular fibrillation. Frist, who keeps a full emergency response kit in his medical bag in his office closet, was called by security and within minutes shocked the man's heart back to normal.

In the July 24, 1998 shooting that left two Capitol guards dead, Frist was the first medical professional to arrive on the scene to treat those injured, including the gunman.

"It was a tragic incident. I know almost all of the Capitol guards."

After the first incident, guards were instructed to call Frist as well as emergency medical personnel in the case of an emergency.

Many of his contributions on the Senate floor since 1994 also focus on health care.

Among many achievements, he serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Education. He served on a 17-member National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare that looked into issues including the funding of kidney transplants in end-stage renal disease.

He also chairs the Public Health and Safety Subcommittee where he is responsible for looking into a wide range of public health issues from the training of rural health professionals to bioterrorism.

He was one of the original sponsors of a bill that doubled the funding of the National Institutes of Health, and he works to support academic health institutions like Vanderbilt.

"It's a huge priority for me," he said.

In April, he was the senate sponsor of the First Family Pledge, an initiative to increase awareness of organ and tissue donation and has introduced a bill to Congress that calls for awarding congressional medals to families who donate a loved one's organs.

He sponsored a women's health bill that passed last year's Congress that increases research in women's health care issues and helped draft and pass legislation guaranteeing 48 hours of insurance coverage for mothers and their newborn infants.

He also introduced a bill to establish Medical Savings Accounts as personal medical savings options.

Frist, who lives in Washington with his wife, Karyn, and sons, Harrison, Jonathan and Bryan, is currently seeking re-election in 2000. If he's elected to another six-year term, he pledges to stop there.

"I believe 12 years is the perfect amount of time to spend here," he said. "But if public service calls in some other way that I can make a difference, I would certainly consider it."

He's not ruling out returning to a career in medicine either.

"I may continue to be involved in medicine. I may return to a medical school or run a research lab, because a physician is what I am first and foremost. That's what I spent my career training to be."