Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and a heart surgeon, acknowledged yesterday that Terri Schiavo had suffered devastating brain damage and said his assertion three months ago that she was "not somebody in persistent vegetative state" did not amount to a medical diagnosis.
Frist (R-Tenn.), appearing on three network TV shows, agreed with this week's autopsy conclusion that the Florida woman had suffered severe, irreversible brain damage. "I never, never, on the floor of the Senate, made a diagnosis, nor would I ever do that," he told NBC's "Today" show.
Some Democrats and doctors criticized Frist's March 17 Senate speech in which he said he was commenting on Schiavo's highly publicized case "more as a physician than as a United States senator."
In that speech, Frist said he had reviewed videotapes of Schiavo and noted that her brother "said that she responds to her parents and to him. That is not somebody in persistent vegetative state. . . . There just seems to be insufficient information to conclude that Terri Schiavo is [in a] persistent vegetative state."
"I question it based on a review of the video footage, which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office here in the Capitol," Frist said in the speech. He said his comments were also partly based on a conversation with one of several neurologists who had evaluated Schiavo.
Frist's speech, made two weeks before Schiavo died, came as Congress held a rare Easter weekend session to order federal courts to review Florida court decisions saying that her feeding tube could be removed. Among those criticizing Frist's actions were 31 of his Harvard Medical School classmates, who sent him a letter saying he had used his medical degree improperly.
Yesterday, Frist was touting legislation to provide a health information technology system for U.S. hospitals, co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). But correspondents for ABC, CBS and NBC first asked him about the Schiavo autopsy findings.
"I never said, 'she responded' " to stimulation, he told Matt Lauer on "Today." "I said I reviewed the court videotapes -- the same ones the other doctors reviewed -- and I questioned, 'Is her diagnosis correct?' . . . I think it is big news that she had totally irreversible brain damage, and we now have that information. . . . All we were arguing for on the floor of the Senate was to get an accurate diagnosis before you withdraw the feeding tube from a live person."
On ABC's "Good Morning America," Frist said: "Looking at the court-appointed tapes, I raised the question 'Is she in a persistent vegetative state or not?' I never made the diagnosis, never said that she was not. I did say that certain tests should be performed to determine that before starving her to death. That was not done. The court acted. I respect the way they acted. I respect the pathologist's report yesterday."
"She had devastating brain damage," Frist said, "and with that, the chapter's closed."