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Vol. LXII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
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Bill Frist Talks With PHS Students About His “Unconventional Life”

Ellen Gilbert

Noting that he was the most junior member of the Senate when his Republican colleagues unanimously made him the 18th majority leader in 2002, just eight years after his election and with less total time served in Congress than anyone ever to hold the position, Bill Frist recently spoke with Princeton High School students about his “unconventional approach to life.”

Mr. Frist’s visit to the high school was the result of meeting PHS junior Connor Ryan, who, as an organizer of the PHS’s Republican club, had bn invited to a function sponsored by Republican students at Princeton University last fall. Connor invited Mr. Frist to speak at the high school and the result, several months in the planning, was last week’s session in the high school’s Black Box Theater with several 8th period U.S. History classes in attendance.

Connor, who has a particular interest in politics and current affairs, introduced Mr. Frist with an account of the former Senator’s educational and professional achievements. Mr. Frist picked up where Connor left off, describing his training and practice as a cardio-thoracic transplant surgeon. “I gave them life,” he said of the patients he treated. Mr. Frist went on to talk about how he decided to run for public office in 1994 as a candidate for senator from Tennessee, at the unlikely age of 39. Lots of people said he was “crazy” for doing it, he noted, but he thought otherwise, describing becoming an elected official as “extending healing” from “one-on-one, to one-on-many.” He attributed his quick rise as a Senator to “not being very smart, but working very hard.”

Mr. Frist said his untraditional attitude toward life was reflected again in his decision to leave the Senate after 12 years, unlike “career politicians” who keep getting re-elected “without thinking about service.” A 1974 graduate of Princeton University, Mr. Frist said he is mindful of the school’s motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service.” He said that the current absence in Congress of “citizen-legislators” who come for a finite number terms is regrettable. “The longer you’re in Washington, the more the special interests get to you,” he observed.

Mr. Frist, who is now 55, joined the faculty of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs last fall, with an appointment for the 2007-08 academic year as the Frederick H. Schultz Class of 1951 Professor of International Economic Policy, with the rank of lecturer on public and international affairs. He taught a graduate course on health policy during the fall semester, and is now teaching an undergraduate course on the same subject. On coming back to his alma mater as a teacher, he said that it was “an honor to return to the Woodrow Wilson School as a member of its distinguished faculty. My journey with the students will bridge the practical and the theoretical as we explore together the new explosion in health diplomacy, the use of medicine as a ‘currency for peace,’ and health care reform both here at home and abroad.”

Health care was very much on Mr. Frist’s mind last Tuesday, as he queried students about their knowledge and opinions on the subject. “Where do you think we stand among the 40 developed nations of the world in terms of life expectancy?” he asked. Students suggested a wide range of answers (“17th,” “4th”) before Mr. Frist offered the correct one: 25th. As for infant mortality, he told his audience, “we are 27th. Why,” he went on, “in a country of Nobel laureates, do we fare so poorly?” Students suggested a variety of reasons, including the unevenness of health care services, unhealthy habits (like smoking), the superiority of European medical systems, and the numbers of casualties dying in combat. Mr. Frist responded by citing five main reasons for the lag, with behavioral (e.g., not wearing seat belts) and genetic factors at the top, followed by socio-economic variables, environmental causes, and the quality of available health care.

Mr. Frist reviewed the perspectives of the three current presidential candidates toward U.S. health care, noting that there are currently 47 million uninsured people and the number is growing. Describing the “three, clear-cut choices” of the candidates (Hillary Clinton endorsing universal health care, Barack Obama touting more choices at lower costs, and John McCain backing privatized, market-based health care), Mr. Frist pointed out that none of the candidates is saying that “we should adopt the German or British health care system.” In Britain, he went on, you may need an emergency heart operation at 8 p.m. but the service will be closed for the day, and you will have to wait until the next day for the procedure. In the U.S.’s current consumer-driven system, he went on, a patient would undergo heart surgery as soon as it was needed, no matter what time of day.

Mr. Frist added that he has worked with all three candidates, that he respects them all, and that any of them would make a good president. He believes, however, that Mr. Obama will be the Democratic candidate, and that it’s too close to call the race at this point. “Iraq will be there for a long period of time” no matter who is elected,” he told students.

Mr. Frist has his own particular connection to Iraq, he said. Years ago as a surgeon, he was called on to operate on a soldier who had been wounded in the chest during a live-fire demonstration at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky. The young solider whose life Mr. Frist saved that day turned out to be a fellow Princeton alumnus, General David H. Petraeus, now commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq.

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