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Dr. Frist Diagnosed Schiavo, Sen. Frist Claimed Otherwise

Following the release of Terri Schiavo’s autopsy that found that she had irreversible brain damage and was blind, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) denied that he had ever diagnosed her.

“I never made a diagnosis,” he said last week on the “Today” show. “I think it is big news that she had totally irreversible brain damage.”

When “Today” show host Matt Lauer asked Frist about his comments that Schiavo responded to external stimuli, Frist replied, “No, I never said she responded. … I never, never on the floor of the Senate made a diagnosis, nor would I ever do that.”

Did Dr. Frist diagnose Schiavo? Is Sen. Frist telling the truth?

In his statement on the U.S. Senate floor on March 17, after the Senate passed a bill to intervene against the court’s ruling to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, Dr. Frist put on his white coat.

“I’d like to close this evening speaking more as a physician than as a United States senator and really speak of my involvement as a physician,” he said, asserting his medical expertise over his political position.

The doctor told his political colleagues and the listening public that as a transplant surgeon he had firsthand experience with the difficulties associated with the diagnosis of brain death.

“I talked to her family and had the opportunity to meet her son, and her son told me that she is responsive. … Her brother said that she responds to her parents and to him. And that is not somebody in persistent vegetative state,” said the Tennessee surgeon.

Dr. Frist criticized the judge’s decision, saying “one judge had decided on what at least initially to me looks like wrong data, incomplete data” to put someone to death.

“Persistent vegetative state, which is what the court ruled—I question it. 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. And that footage, to me depicts something very different than persistent vegetative state,” said the doctor.

Frist then read part of the definition for persistent vegetative state from “one of the classic textbooks that we use in medicine today,” citing the volume’s publication date and page number.

The doctor said he was disturbed “only because it suggests that she hasn’t been fully evaluated by today’s standards.”

Dr. Frist offered a second opinion. No matter how much the senator parses the words diagnosis and response, the doctor did what he claims he didn’t and shouldn’t have done without examining the patient.

Among the growing examples of Frist’s relentless pandering to the religious right, this case stands out as his most shameful effort.

He seems now to know that what he did was wrong and wants to evade the consequences. On “The Early Show,” Sen. Frist said, “I think it’s time to move on.”

Moving on is the last thing the American public needs to do. The senator’s statements are not biodegradable, nor should they be. He chose ideology over science, fiction over fact, opportunism over principle.

The public needs to remember his actions as a window to the character of a man with unfettered presidential ambitions, who cynically used a tragic situation to establish his moral credentials with the religious right.

Isn’t it time to move on from the ideological extremists and create a broad center for the public good?

Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.