Special Report

The Doctor Is In: Meet the GOP’s New Senator

Dr. John Barrasso once gave me some good prostate advice.

By 7.2.07

Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming passed away on June 4 after an eight-month battle with leukemia, and after two decades of service to the Cowboy State, first as a congressman (1989-1995), and then as a U.S. senator (1995-2007).

Senator Thomas had been reelected in 2006 with 70 percent of the vote. He had received his diagnosis very late in the campaign, and had spent Election Day in a D.C. hospital. He was beloved in Wyoming; his forte being public lands issues in the West.

Thomas's passing kicked into gear a bizarre selection process for his seat (thanks to the Wyoming State Constitution), in which the majority party in the state legislature (in this case the Republicans) submits three names to the governor (in this case Democrat David Freudenthal), who chooses one to hold the seat until the end of the current Congress. The seat will be contested in November 2008 (when Wyoming's entire three-seat congressional delegation will be up for grabs). And, of course, the governor would pick the name thought to be most beatable by a Democrat.

Rather than bore the reader with the details of a two-week-long convoluted process that involved a 71-member state GOP central committee (Wyoming's secular smoke-filled-room version of the College of Cardinals) casting multiple rounds of votes in a process of elimination involving 31 declared candidates (many themselves members of the central committee), suffice it to say that Governor Freudenthal ultimately chose John A. Barrasso, MD, 54, Casper orthopedic surgeon and citizen legislator of five years standing.

Dr. Barrasso is a pro-life conservative, and conservative on most other issues as well. Although his legislative experience consists of only five years service in the Wyoming senate, Barrasso has been active in Cowboy State politics for over two decades. As a doctor, he has a reputation for being well schooled on health care issues. He was obviously -- despite inexperience -- politically astute enough to have steered himself through the selection process, most of his serious competition dwarfing his meager resume.

ANY WYOMINGITE INTERESTED in public affairs knows that our local solons are accessible. Here in Cody, Alan Simpson --retired, yet influential -- is listed in the phone book. I've shaken hands with Big Al on scores of occasions: at the grocery store, at the post office, and on Cody's streets. I've discovered that shaking hands with Big Al is a little like kissing your aunt: after a few times it loses its magic. The same goes for his son Colin Simpson (alas, one of those 30 political bridesmaids to Barrasso's bride), who represents Cody and environs in the legislature, and is a rising political star in his own right. I always seemed to shake hands annually with Senator Thomas at Cody's Fourth of July "Stampede" parade, and we'll miss him this year. I've never shaken hands with Dick Cheney on his many visits home. Maybe I can't pass a Secret Service security clearance thanks to my minor police record accumulated during my drinking days twenty years ago. Anyway, I have met John Barrasso.

It's actually refreshing to have a physician serving in Wyoming's congressional delegation; in fact, it's ironic, given that a large portion of that 71-member central committee are -- at least part time -- attorneys. One is reminded of the fact that roughly half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers, and it's been downhill ever since. But I digress.

West Park Hospital in Cody used to sponsor a Health Fair annually on a Saturday in April, first in the high school gym, and later at the newly constructed Riley Events Center. It has since discontinued the service. There were information booths devoted to major illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, all designed to terrify and edify hypochondriacs in myriad ways. You could get a free five-minute massage or your blood pressure taken. A local chiropractor had you stand with your feet each on a separate bathroom scale, and in this way knew that your spine was crooked, and that you should call his office the following week to make an appointment. The local holistic crowd was well represented, hawking herbs, potions, and exotic teas designed to cure everything from halitosis to hemorrhoids. And there were off-duty doctors and nurses available to answer serious questions.

Many people -- myself included -- took advantage of a discount rate blood draw two weeks before, and the results could be mailed to you or picked up at the Health Fair. There those learned physicians -- seated behind a couple of long banquet tables -- would help you decipher all those weird numbers full of decimal points. And as I approached one table, there was Dr. John Barrasso. I'm guessing that this was roughly five years ago, around the time he was first elected to the Wyoming Senate.

Since Dr. Barrasso lives in Casper, some 200 miles from Cody, he was probably in town for some sort of event or meeting, either political or medical, and while here somebody at the hospital lassoed him to work the Health Fair.

I got on a short line to his spot, and waited out a couple of old-timers ahead me. These consultations reminded me of a Catholic confessional. The folks in line can only hear from a short distance the subtle murmurs of confessor and sinner (in this case doctor and patient), knowing they will soon be next. When my turn came I sat down across from the good doctor.

HE WAS ABOUT MY AGE, with black hair, and dark framed glasses that gave him a scholarly look. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and I handed over my blood test results. I told Dr. Barrasso that I was a political junkie and well aware of his public service. He smiled and said it was always a pleasure for him to meet people interested in public affairs. Then he said: "Well, let's have a look at your numbers."

"They look good," continued Dr. Barrasso. "Glucose looks good: no diabetes. Kidney function, liver function: both good. HDL: good. Triglycerides: good. Thyroid function: good. The only one I'm concerned about is your LDL, which is slightly elevated above the normal range."

"Can that be an indicator of future heart attack or stroke?" I asked, always the well-informed hypochondriac.

"Yes it can, you should get it down," said Dr. Barrasso as he continued to scan the numbers. "A good exercise program can do that. I wouldn't recommend medication unless your HDL and Triglycerides were also out of range, but they're not, and that's good."

"But I'm in good shape," I protested. "I regularly hike in the mountains and ride my bike around town."

"Good," said Dr. Barrasso. "Keep it up."

"I try to eat right. Fruits and vegetables. And I take a daily multivitamin."

"Good," laughed Dr. Barrasso. "Keep it up."

All hypochondriacs know that it is important to make the most of free medical advice.

"How does my PSA look?" I asked.

"Fine. Excellent, in fact."

"I just had a digital at the prostate screening a few months ago," I said. "Dr. Christianson...."

"Good", said Dr. Barrasso. "What did he find?"

"Uhh, slight BPH," I said.

"How old are you?"

I told him.

"I'm a year older than you," smiled Dr. Barrasso philosophically. "Unfortunately, the game starts to change for us now."

"I'm tired of getting up two or three times a night," I said. "Do I need medication?"

"I'd stay away from it as long I could," said Dr. Barrasso. "Because once you're on it, you're on it. Try Saw Palmetto. See if it works for you."

I drink a lot of coffee during the day," I said. "Could that contribute to the problem? I'm a freelance writer." I added this last as an excuse, but Dr. Barrasso remained his old clinical self.

"Coffee is a diuretic. Anything with caffeine. Tea. Soft drinks. They will contribute to your problem," he said, with some finality.

I had the feeling I was close to exhausting Dr. Barrasso's patience quotient for dealing with otherwise healthy middle-aged hypochondriacs.

"Okay, thanks Doc," I said, as I got up. We shook hands again, and he handed back my test results. Dr. Barrasso smiled and said: "You'll live to be a hundred." He was already looking over my shoulder at the next person in line, an elderly woman clutching her handbag and medical paperwork. There was a trace of anxiety on her face.

"Hi," smiled the cheerful Dr. John Barrasso.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.