By Rachel Wegner | Published in the Tennessean on January 14, 2021
On July 24, 1998, a gunman went on a rampage through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, leaving two Capitol Police officers dead and a tourist seriously injured.
The gunman had been shot multiple times by an officer when then-Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist stepped in not as a senator, but a physician.
Frist, a heart surgeon, said he ran two blocks to the Capitol building to help after a staffer told him what happened.
He first attended a wounded officer until emergency personnel arrived. Then he turned his attention to a second man, uncertain of his identity. That man turned out to be Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who police later named as the gunman.
In the end, Frist resuscitated Weston.
“It is not what a U.S. senator typically does, but it is what this senator has done all of his adult life,” Frist told reporters shortly after the shooting. “I didn’t do anything any other trauma surgeon wouldn’t have done.”
The 1998 shooting marked the last time a Capitol Police officer died in the line of duty before the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 this year.
In a 2018 Forbes column, Frist said he had an informal agreement with the Capitol Physician’s office to notify him if there was a medical emergency on the grounds. He was the only doctor in the Senate at the time.
Frist was a heart transplant surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center before entering politics four years before the shooting. The shooting marked the fourth time his medical training had come into play since becoming a senator.
In 1995, Frist revived a 60-year-old constituent who collapsed inside a Senate office. In 1996, he tended to a woman who was choking while he was on vacation. In 1997, he came to the aid of Sen. Diane Feinstein when she became short of breath during an allergic reaction.
“Twenty years ago tomorrow was one of the most memorable days in my U.S. Senate career. And it haunts me still,” Frist wrote.
He detailed the harrowing events of the day and called for improvements in mental health care. The 1998 Capitol gunman was suffering from mental illness.
“On this anniversary, I reverentially reflect on the heroic sacrifices our men and women in uniform make every day,” Frist wrote. “And as a physician, I’m prompted again to consider the discouraging state of mental health in America, and especially the poor care too many of those who suffer from mental illness today receive.”