Bill Frist: A Doctor at Heart

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon, examines Kuja, a gorilla at the National Zoo, for signs of heart disease.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon, examines Kuja, a gorilla at the National Zoo, for signs of heart disease. (By Graham Wells)
By Laura Blumenfeld
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The houses were dark on Bill Frist's street. A morning bird chirped; the others were waiting for dawn. But Frist was awake, and his bedroom light was on. "I'm going to take a shower," the Senate majority leader said brightly. Ten minutes later, the blow dryer roared.

In the kitchen, Frist's wife, Karyn, was brewing coffee and remembering their life before politics. For 20 years, Frist had worked as a heart transplant surgeon. He had stitched hearts into more than 150 lives.

One Saturday night, Karyn recalled, "we were supposed to go to a movie. He walked out in his scrubs." Instead of taking Karyn to the theater, Frist brought her to the operating room. "To see the human body alive -- without a heart in it."

As Karyn spoke, Frist came down the stairs. "This is really who you are," she said, looking up at him. She first met Frist in the emergency room, where he treated her for a sprained wrist. "I fell in love with him in his scrub suit, with blood splattered on his clogs. I see him doing that, almost more than as a politician."

Frist, at heart, is a doctor. At 5:45 a.m., before a recent Senate workday, he prepared for a quirky slice of surgery. During congressional breaks, Frist, 54, has been known to fly to Africa to operate. But in Washington, he has quietly cultivated another practice: gorillas at the National Zoo.

"These gorillas seem to develop heart disease," said Frist (R-Tenn.). "It's totally unknown. I did a lit search -- nothing. The fact that we're working on the edge of the unknown is fun."

"Well, your first patient was a dog," Karyn said. In medical school, Frist cut out a dog's heart and held it in his palm. It continued to beat for a slippery minute.

"Watching it beat, the beauty of it," Frist recalled. "I decided I would spend my life centered around the heart."

"And you didn't say 'I'll take some time off and be a politician' while you were holding the dog heart," Karyn said.

Frist, in a gray suit, picked up his file marked "ZOO" and said, "We've got to be on time to open the Senate."

He climbed into the back of his black SUV; his driver steered toward the zoo. "I gravitate towards insurmountable problems," Frist said, his long legs spilling between the front seats. "I try to use creative solutions." One day, he hopes to cure AIDS or cancer. He sucked on the stem of his glasses: "The typical person around here may not understand."

At the zoo hospital, a team of four veterinarians, three technicians, an animal keeper and a veterinary dentist were wheeling a 350-pound gorilla into surgery as Frist arrived. They would perform an ultrasound of the heart, a root canal and a physical. Frist joined the team, as he had on other mornings, tying on a mask. He unbuttoned his business shirt, revealing jungle-pattern surgical scrubs and a pair of hairy, toned biceps.

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