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Partnerships are key for global health, Frist says

“You don’t go to war with somebody who has just saved the life of your child,” says Dr. Bill Frist, chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

A UMNS Feature
By Tim Tanton*
Sept. 25, 2009

Dr. Bill Frist was flying low in a Cessna Caravan above the treetops in southern Sudan, an area routinely bombed by government forces during the country’s ongoing civil war.

The year was 1998. Frist, a U.S. senator, was entering Sudan surreptitiously as part of a medical mission sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse. Sudan had no diplomatic relations with the United States, which had identified the African country as a sponsor of terrorism.

In the remote Liu area, Frist flew over a site where bombing had claimed a rural hospital.

“It had been destroyed,” he recalls. “There was fighting all around.” However, his team was able to work in a makeshift clinic.

“I came back the next year, the fighting had stopped,” Frist, 57, says. “I came back the next year, and there was a little tiny village, maybe a hundred … huts there. And then I came back the next year, and all of a sudden the church, which had been bombed, was blossoming. There was a school there. There was a hospital there. Nobody was fighting.

“So then I said that, basically, there is something to this – that medicine or health is a currency for peace,” he says.

That idea became the foundation for his global health nonprofit, Hope Through Healing Hands. For the surgeon and former U.S. Senate majority leader, health care has a role to play in building communities – and building peace.

“You don’t go to war with somebody who has just saved the life of your child,” he explains.

Building partnerships

When Frist began his residency in 1981 at Massachusetts General Hospital, AIDS was virtually unknown. Today, he says, 2.5 million people die annually of HIV/AIDS, along with 2 million from tuberculosis and 1 million from malaria. These diseases represent a “huge challenge” that he believes can best be met through partnerships.

The world’s greatest health care need is to address childhood and maternal mortality, Frist says. A UMNS Web-only image courtesy of Hope Through Healing Hands.

The prospect of partnership brought Frist, a Presbyterian, to United Methodist Communications last July to discuss possible ways of working together with leaders of the denomination’s Global Health Initiative. Hope Through Healing Hands, based in Nashville, Tenn., focuses on sustainable development in impoverished communities and building what Frist calls “people power.”

The United Methodist Church’s power, he says, comes from an understanding of global health needs combined with having resources in place – pastors, churches, members – to reach people on the ground.

“I see no other organization in the world that has the sort of vertical integration and reach where a dollar given to the church can go through the appropriate channels and … with accountability and full transparency, that dollar arrives on the ground … to have the impact of saving somebody’s life,” he says.

The Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications, says he is excited that Frist’s concern for global health complements that of the church. “Our interests in providing health care access to those who are poor and vulnerable to the diseases of poverty are very compatible.”

Deaths are preventable

The son of a doctor, Frist says he was “blessed to gravitate to a field of healing,” and he built a reputation as a transplant surgeon. In 1994, he surprised some by entering politics, winning a Senate seat for the Republican Party.

In his new book, out Oct. 5, Frist describes his commitment to promoting health. A UMNS image courtesy of Center Street/Hachette Book Group.

“I went (to Washington) because I believed that healing one on one could be transformed and elevated to healing not just an individual but healing a community – a community which, if you’re a senator, can be a state,” he says.

Frist’s business card still carries the title of those days when he strode center stage on the U.S. national scene, his name routinely mentioned on lists of presidential possibilities. After serving two terms in the Senate, he retired as majority leader in 2007.

In a new book, “A Heart to Serve” (Center Street/Hachette Book Group), Frist describes his journey, which has included mission trips to Mozambique, Bangladesh, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. “I’ve been in the Sudan every year for the past eight years,” he says.

The greatest need exists in the area of childhood and maternal mortality, he says. “There are 25,000 children who will die over the next 24 hours between the ages of 0 and 5. Sixteen thousand of those will die of preventable or easily treatable causes.”

Vaccines are not distributed well around the world, and $17 worth of vaccine can be life saving, he says. In most parts of the world, children die when they get diarrhea, he notes. “Simple oral rehydration can be lifesaving.”

Huge gap remains

Clean water is a concern for Hope Through Healing Hands, which focuses on building capacity for health care in underserved communities around the world. The organization funds medical, nursing and public health students to do service and trains community health workers. Its impact, Frist says, complements that of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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Frist was at the White House in 2001 when then-President George W. Bush committed the first $200 million to the new Global Fund. Since then, he has seen “much demonstrable success,” he says. “Yet there is a huge gap between what is actually needed and what is today being provided.”

The No. 1 obstacle to solving global health problems, he says, is a lack of communication about the need and the solutions. Malaria, for example, can be prevented with an inexpensive, insecticide-treated bed net.

People need to stand up and get involved, Frist says. “With that, we can literally save a million lives a year. Malaria can be wiped out.”

*Tanton is director of the Media Group at United Methodist Communications. This story originally appeared in Interpreter magazine.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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