Bill Frist: A Doctor at Heart

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.

"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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