STOP THIS MAN BEFORE HE DIAGNOSES AGAIN….I wasn’t going to comment on the Terry Schiavo case, mostly because it seems that any attention just feeds directly into what conservatives are hoping to achieve: a trumped-up culture war. (See Ed Kilgore’s comments for my general take on the issue.) But Senator Frist’s recent diagnosis—via a home-made video, it’s important to note–that Schiavo is not actually in a persistent vegetative state, compels me to write. To the extent that Frist’s comments have been covered at all, it has been through the 2008 “Oh, he’s just trying to suck up to the Christian Right” lens. (And by the way, Senator, if that’s what you’re doing, let me save you the effort and a few years of your life: the Christian Right favorites are Santorum and Brownback. No amount of false diagnosing is going to change that. Oh, and by the time the Social Security debacle is over, your political career will be as well.)
But what’s really appalling about Frist’s latest I’m-not-a-neurologist-but-I-play-one-in-the-Senate routine is that he does this all the time. For at least eight years, Frist has been making medical pronouncements on all manner of medical issues outside his speciality (he’s a heart surgeon), and his message is always the same: You can’t trust all those other doctors, but you can trust me because I am a doctor.
Last December, when asked by George Stephanopoulos whether HIV could be transmitted through saliva or tears, Frist refused to say that it could not, stalling three times before finally admitting, “It would be very hard.” That’s putting it mildly. In October 2001, after a letter containing anthrax was sent to Senator Daschle’s office, Frist assured his fellow senators that the anthrax wasn’t powerful enough to kill anyone, even though several people had already died in Florida and postal workers who handled the letter in D.C. subsequently died. And in 1997, when the Senate was debating the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban,” Frist claimed on the Senate floor that D&X, the abortion procedure they sought to ban, was a “rogue procedure” that was not taught in medical schools, a claim that would come as a surprise to many teaching hospitals.
Frist is a doctor, yes. But he is not a neurologist, he is not an infectious disease specialist, he is not a biological agent expert, and he is not an obstetrician. He uses his “Dr.” title as a smokescreen to make politically-motivated pronouncements. The only reason he gets away with it is that people are intimidated by his certainty, reminded (because he repeats it all the time) that he is the Senate’s only physician.
Except he’s not. Now that Tom Coburn is the junior senator from Oklahoma, Frist is merely the Senate’s only not insane physician. Who are you or I to question his medical judgment? When it comes to diagnosing neurological function on the basis of watching a home video for an hour, you and I are just about as qualified as Frist.