In medical school, Frist cut out a dog’s heart and held it in his palm. It continued to beat for a slippery minute.
“Watching it beat, the beauty of it,” Frist recalled. “I decided I would spend my life centered around the heart.”
“And you didn’t say ‘I’ll take some time off and be a politician’ while you were holding the dog heart,” Karyn said.
Frist, in a gray suit, picked up his file marked “ZOO” and said, “We’ve got to be on time to open the Senate.”
He climbed into the back of his black SUV; his driver steered toward the zoo. “I gravitate towards insurmountable problems,” Frist said, his long legs spilling between the front seats. “I try to use creative solutions.” One day, he hopes to cure AIDS or cancer. He sucked on the stem of his glasses: “The typical person around here may not understand.”
At the zoo hospital, a team of four veterinarians, three technicians, an animal keeper and a veterinary dentist were wheeling a 350-pound gorilla into surgery as Frist arrived. They would perform an ultrasound of the heart, a root canal and a physical. Frist joined the team, as he had on other mornings, tying on a mask. He unbuttoned his business shirt, revealing jungle-pattern surgical scrubs and a pair of hairy, toned biceps.
“A little bit like Superman,” said the dentist, Chuck Williams.
Frist snapped on rubber gloves. He leaned over the operating table, gripping the corners. An oxygen monitor beeped. The patient gagged.
“This is home,” Frist said through his mask. “Where I spent 12 hours a day for 20 years.” Frist spent so much time in the hospital in Tennessee that when he came home to his wife and three sons he felt like an intruder.
He pressed his stethoscope to the gorilla’s chest and narrowed his eyes. Kuja, a silverback patriarch, was breathing isofluorine. He was the Senate majority leader of the gorillas, who negotiated disputes, back-slapped the ape boys and owned exclusive mating rights with the females. When Kuja started to stir, a veterinarian injected more anesthesia. One backhanded swipe could break Frist’s neck.
Frist listened to the heart; the gorilla’s lub-dub sounded human. “When you’re this close, you feel this kind of oneness with them,” Frist said. The stink of ape sweat and gorilla testosterone soaked his hair and clothes. “Gorillas, people, men. You look at the people here, a symphonic flow of people pitching in. It’s the oneness of humanity.”
This kind of oneness does not come easily to Frist. Though devoted to matters of the heart, Frist acknowledges that he is aloof, something he traces back to the day he refused to attend kindergarten. He calls it “the Great Wall,” an emotional barrier that has kept him from having close friends. It is a wall that could block his connection with voters, some say, and his way to the White House.
But in the operating room there were no walls, only bridges, as one arm reached over another. A veterinarian rotated the ultrasound probe over Kuja’s heart. The dentist tweezed out the bloody string of a root canal — “Isn’t this exciting?” And Frist slipped an IV needle into Kuja’s vein. His gloves turned red with gorilla blood.
“There’s almost a spiritual, poetic component to it,” Frist said, his eyes expressing what his surgical mask hid. “This oneness, this wholeness. You can’t compare it to the Senate floor. I immerse myself in it. This is my real life.”
I just can’t bring myself to quote more. Laura Blumenfeld may have a future in truly awful bodice-ripper writing, but for the love of God and all that’s sacred, keep her away from political profiles. Is she the editor’s high school daughter? Did she win this assignment because she has compromising photos of someone? “Hairy, toned biceps”? “His eyes expressing what his surgical mask hid”??? Maybe it’s a joke. Could this be a joke?
I happen to know a bit about this heart disease, having lost a good gorilla friend to it in my animal caretaker days. I also know there IS literature, albeit thin and frustrating. I wish I could say that the fact Frist is working on this problem raises him a notch or two in my estimation, but mostly, I’m scared for the gorillas.