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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)

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"A little bit like Superman," said the dentist, Chuck Williams.

Frist snapped on rubber gloves. He leaned over the operating table, gripping the corners. An oxygen monitor beeped. The patient gagged.

"This is home," Frist said through his mask. "Where I spent 12 hours a day for 20 years." Frist spent so much time in the hospital in Tennessee that when he came home to his wife and three sons he felt like an intruder.

He pressed his stethoscope to the gorilla's chest and narrowed his eyes. Kuja, a silverback patriarch, was breathing isofluorine. He was the Senate majority leader of the gorillas, who negotiated disputes, back-slapped the ape boys and owned exclusive mating rights with the females. When Kuja started to stir, a veterinarian injected more anesthesia. One backhanded swipe could break Frist's neck.

Frist listened to the heart; the gorilla's lub-dub sounded human. "When you're this close, you feel this kind of oneness with them," Frist said. The stink of ape sweat and gorilla testosterone soaked his hair and clothes. "Gorillas, people, men. You look at the people here, a symphonic flow of people pitching in. It's the oneness of humanity."

This kind of oneness does not come easily to Frist. Though devoted to matters of the heart, Frist acknowledges that he is aloof, something he traces back to the day he refused to attend kindergarten. He calls it "the Great Wall," an emotional barrier that has kept him from having close friends. It is a wall that could block his connection with voters, some say, and his way to the White House.

But in the operating room there were no walls, only bridges, as one arm reached over another. A veterinarian rotated the ultrasound probe over Kuja's heart. The dentist tweezed out the bloody string of a root canal -- "Isn't this exciting?" And Frist slipped an IV needle into Kuja's vein. His gloves turned red with gorilla blood.

"There's almost a spiritual, poetic component to it," Frist said, his eyes expressing what his surgical mask hid. "This oneness, this wholeness. You can't compare it to the Senate floor. I immerse myself in it. This is my real life."

Frist lifted Kuja's huge, leathery black hand. Williams, the dentist, said, "Take him with you to the Senate, so when Biden or Kennedy mouth off, you can turn him loose."

"He's on my side," Frist said, stroking Kuja's fur.

Afterward, Frist buttoned himself back up, into his blue shirt and into his senatorial reserve. "I need to be talking to the Israeli prime minister in 18 minutes," he told his driver as the SUV rumbled toward the Capitol. He said he was aware of critics, "People say, 'Oh, he's inside-baseball, and stiff.' "

"Reid called," an aide said at the Capitol door, referring to the Democratic leader.

"I think we're on the same wavelength," Frist said as they strode inside.

At 9:30 a.m., Frist opened the Senate, gripping the corners of the lectern, as he had the operating table. Across the city, rolling in a bed of hay, Kuja opened his eyes and grunted. The gorilla kept touching his tongue to his tooth. Something had changed inside of the beast while he slept. Frist smiled and spoke unremarkably from the lectern, reeking of silverback testosterone.

Off Camera is a monthly column by Laura Blumenfeld featuring Washington's top decision makers in their off hours -- outside the office and inside their lives.


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