Former Sen. Bill Frist’s tenure as Senate Majority Leader is perhaps best known for an unfortunate misstep. In 2005, the Tennessee Republican weighed in on the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo, declaring that he, as a heart surgeon, could make a reliable medical diagnosis about the brain-damaged woman by watching a brief video filmed by the patient’s family.
Indeed, despite criticism from medical professionals, Frist felt comfortable saying that he, unlike Schiavo’s actual doctors, could speak with authority about whether she was in a persistent vegetative state.
The result was a political fiasco and a lesson for physicians-turned-politicians everywhere: don’t give a definitive medical diagnosis about a patient they haven’t seen, in the midst of a political debate, based on a brief video of dubious quality.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was in the Senate in 2005, but must have missed Frist’s story.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who is a also a physician, told CNN he is convinced that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was drugged in the so-called “proof of life” video shown to senators during a closed briefing Wednesday.When news broke of Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Guantanamo prisoners, administration officials cited Bergdahl’s health as a driving factor in the decision to make the deal and get him home.
Coburn talked to CNN’s Dana Bash late yesterday, telling her that he’s convinced that Bergdahl “had been drugged … either with an anti-psychotic or hypnotic drug.” The Oklahoma Republican said his diagnosis is “obviously” true and was “easy” to make.
Coburn added that it’s “not at all” possible that Bergdahl was sick. The released prisoner’s “physical health,” the senator told Bash, “is fine.”
Just to drive the point home, the far-right Oklahoman, an obstetrician gynecologist by trade, went on to argue, “I’m speaking as a doctor, yeah.”
Oh, where to begin.
There is, of course, a political context to this. For Republicans eager to condemn the prisoner exchange that freed the American POW, it’s become necessary to pushback against the Obama administration’s case. In this case, the White House said the move was precipitated by concerns that Bergdahl’s health was failing.
With this in mind, the right needs to believe that Bergdahl’s health wasn’t failing – and here’s Coburn “speaking as a doctor” to give his party a new talking point.
But, as was the case with Frist, Coburn has never been in the same room as the patient he’s diagnosing. Rather, the senator saw a video filmed by the Taliban. The OB-GYN may have suspicions about Bergdahl’s condition in the clip, but drawing definitive medical conclusions this way is a very bad idea.
What’s more, it’s not at all clear how much it matters. Was Bergdahl’s health failing? The intelligence community certainly seems to think so. Was Bergdahl drugged by the Taliban? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Either way, the United States government decided to make every effort to secure the release of an American prisoner of war - just like Republicans demanded before they changed their minds.
This is “obviously” true and an “easy” conclusion to reach.