A Conversation with Bill Frist

by Dorinda Elliott | Published April 2009 | See more Condé Nast Traveler articles

The Bio
Claim to Fame: Heart surgeon; Republican Senate majority leader, 2003-2007.
Activist: Works with the nonpartisan One Campaign to raise awareness of poverty.
Board Member: U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides aid to countries with good governance and economic freedom.around the world.
Obsession: Traveling the world—to Bangladesh, Mozambique, and Rwanda in recent months—for Save the Children.

CNT: Do you think global poverty will get more attention under the Obama administration?

Frist: I hope so. But with the financial crisis it will be hard to match the Bush administration's dramatic growth rates in expenditures for global poverty reduction.

CNT: How did you get so involved in international work?

Frist: I took my three boys to Africa on a safari in the mid-'90s, and my eyes really opened up. I've been back practically every year, traveling and doing medical-mission work.

CNT: What is it about Africa that grabs you?

Frist: There's a primal feeling, a oneness with nature and humanity that you experience when you are immersed in the beauty of the landscape and in the spirit of the people. I recall vividly being in the southern Sudan, in the middle of a civil war, launching a small clinic that now serves a 300-mile radius.

CNT: You took your kids to places few would even dare visit.

Frist: Travel provides life lessons. It's good to get out of your comfort zone. You learn that we're all created equal, that everyone has dignity. It makes my sons better people. I've taken my boys to the Sudan, to the Nuba Mountains, which were completely cut off from foreign aid, and to the Darfur region. I wanted to expose them to things they would never see otherwise. In the Nuba region, while I was meeting in a hut by the airstrip, my ten-year-old, Bryan, was wrestling with a young Nuba boy. Wrestling is a Nuba tradition. Thousands of people showed up. They had never seen a blond child before.

CNT: Do you think travelers want to be challenged like that?

Frist: Most people are looking for original experiences when they travel. They want to participate.

CNT: You work with Save the Children. Why this cause?

Frist: Some 27,000 children die every day—two-thirds of them needlessly. Their lives can be saved with inexpensive medicines and techniques that we know work.

CNT: You talk about the social benefits of medical work too.

Frist: Medicine and healing are a currency for peace. People don't go to war with people who save their children's lives. In the Sudan, I performed surgery in a schoolroom without running water. People came—good guys and bad guys, rebels and officials—out of trust. The clinic we built shows how peace can come to an area where health care is being delivered.

CNT: What's the best way to deal with AIDS?

Frist: I am a strong proponent of the use of anti-retroviral treatments, but you can't treat your way out of the crisis. Prevention is the key. The most important thing is education for young girls.

CNT: The U.S. AIDS initiative promotes abstinence. AIDS activists have criticized you for underestimating the role of condoms. Do you support their use?

Frist: Of course. As a physician and policymaker, I strongly support condom distribution as a means to prevent the spread of HIV. I have consistently supported legislation that includes prevention, care, and treatment.

CNT: Is the $15 billion AIDS initiative in Africa helping?

Frist: Absolutely. I met a mother in Nairobi whose husband had HIV/AIDS. Thanks to American HIV treatments, her little girl is living a full life. So she named her America.