Surgeon-turned-senator at center of anthrax response

Frist offers reassurance to colleagues, public

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 19, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Frist's emergency medical skills have been called upon repeatedly during his seven years in the Senate. He resuscitated a constituent who had a heart attack on the way to his Senate office in 1995, treated the wounded in the 1998 Capitol shooting and rushed to examine 98-year-old Strom Thurmond after his recent collapse on the Senate floor.

But the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill is giving Frist, a heart transplant surgeon, his first chance to show off his bedside manner. His has become the soothing public voice comforting his colleagues, their aides and the American public as they try to cope with the extraordinary anxiety of a germ warfare attack.

"This is what I do, crisis management, counseling people who don't know whether they are going to live or die," said Frist, a second-term Tennessee Republican who these days seems more doctor than senator.

Over the four days since Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle announced that a letter laced with anthrax had arrived in his office, Doctor-Senator Frist seems to have been on the case round the clock.

He began consulting with colleagues in private meetings - translating the medical jargon for them, calming their nerves and offering authoritative advice about testing and treatment decisions.

"I'm planning to write him a note telling him just how reassuring he has been," said Sen. Jean Carnahan, a Missouri Democrat. "He's been very effective in putting everything in plain English. I felt very good after hearing from him. He explained, for example, that just because you test positive doesn't mean you have the disease."

By yesterday, Frist had taken over as the chief congressional briefer on the anthrax scare for the public as well. He made a point of announcing at an afternoon news conference that all the news was good, that no further evidence was found of anthrax exposure beyond the immediate vicinity of Daschle's office.

"He's been an amazing resource," Daschle said of Frist, to whom he and Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott have handed off the public spokesman chores on the anthrax issue.

Frist, 49, plays down the significance of the role he is playing as a matter of coincidence.

"It so happens that I spent 10 years doing nothing but transplanting hearts," which, he said, taught him a lot about infections and immune systems that relate to the anthrax bacteria. "And I'm here now. It's no more complicated than that."

Much more so than the eight physicians in the House, Frist has thoroughly integrated his medical background into his legislative life.

He has been a leading voice on such issues as Medicare reform, patients' rights legislation, stem cell research and funding for AIDS programs. On congressional breaks, he sometimes travels overseas with groups of doctors who provide free medical services to the poor.

Frist's Senate colleagues also take great advantage of his easily accessible medical advice - even though a medical staff is always on duty in the Capitol to serve them.

"If anybody has a serious health problem, Bill Frist is consulted, just automatically - we have so much confidence in him," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. "It's comforting to people because he's so articulate and so highly trained."

When Frist arrived in the Senate in 1995 to assume his first elective office, he was chubby and so openly friendly he would offer his hand to any stranger he encountered: "Hi. I'm Bill Frist," he would say.

But three years ago, he dropped the extra pounds training for the first of three Marine Corps Marathons and added a bit of sports medicine to his advice to colleagues. He and Republican Whip Don Nickles were going to run together in the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 28, but Nickles injured his knee during training and had to drop out.

"I should have been running with Bill - he would have told me to stop running once my knee started hurting, and I'd be OK now," Nickles said.

Frist has also developed a more buttoned-down Washington demeanor over the years and has been mentioned as potential party leader.

But for now, he seems more than content with the title Lott assigned him a few days ago: "Our in-house resident doctor." You can almost see an old, beat-up black bag in his hand, as he hustles through the Capitol, consulting staff members about their anthrax tests.

"Bioweapons have as their purpose to strike in a personal way every American alive, to put fear in their heart," said Frist. He explained that he is trying his best to put those fears to rest.

Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, said Frist is comforting because "he talks to you like your family doctor so you understand what he's saying. It's really neat to have him here. He's a very caring guy."

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