When Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, Dr. Regina Benjamin’s rural health clinic in a south Alabama shrimping village was just one of the casualties, but despite all the chaos, the doctor’s patients didn’t suffer without medical care.
Benjamin set up shop on the stage at the Bayou La Batre Community Center to tend to the sick; she made house calls to dozens more using her old Toyota pickup truck.
Earlier this week, President Obama nominated Benjamin, 52, from Spanish Fort, Ala., to be the next surgeon general. And while the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, has gotten caught up in the fierce debate about the role empathy should play in a judge’s decision-making, there is no such question that Benjamin will need it in her work, and that she has it in bundles.
If confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin will become America’s top doctor at a time when the country is about to engage in a huge conversation on its health care priorities. Her voice and her perspective will be an important one in the debate.
“She’s caring, competent and committed enough to do the job,” says Dr. David Satcher, the 16th U.S. surgeon general who served from February 1998 to January 2001. Satcher taught Benjamin when she was a student at the Morehouse School of Medicine and has been her mentor ever since. “She is deeply committed to providing primary care to underserved communities, serving in rural places and sometimes having to accept fish and other items for services so desperately needed,” Satcher said.
Sometimes there has been no pay at all. She’s gone without a salary so she could pay her staff. She moonlighted in hospital emergency rooms to keep the clinic going.
“She cares about her patients. She cares about her community,” says Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright. “When the water was knee-deep, Regina Benjamin was knee deep in the water helping her patients.”
The mayor also serves on the board of the medical center and says that having Benjamin nominated is source of pride for the entire community. "She done put this town on the map for sure. Forrest Gump can't hold a candle to this nomination," he said referring to the 1994 Tom Hanks movie where Forrest Gump’s shrimping business was based in Bayou La Batre.
Benjamin’s small rural practice may be exactly the kind of experience needed to deal with the monumental problem confronting American health care. Many of her patients don’t have medical insurance or the ability to pay out of their own pockets. Benjamin sometimes has to find the resources to pay not just for the care, but also for the medications she prescribes.
That is just a small analogue to the more than 46 million Americans today who are without health insurance. In her home state of Alabama, treatable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes regularly rob residents of their most productive years. The numbers swell for the nation with 23.6 million people with diabetes, including 5.7 million who are undiagnosed. And an estimated 1 out of 4 adults are walking around with hypertension, many of them undiagnosed.
“She could have gone to so many other places, but she wanted be close to home. She has always been a hardworking person. I have always remembered her persistence and her tenacity,” said Dr. Velda Pugh Kinsey, who attended the Morehouse School of Medicine with Benjamin. Kinsey is director of outpatient mental health for the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In 2008, she received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the ''genius grant.'' She said she would use the $500,000 that went with the award to fund the clinic and for scholarships.
She is a 1998 Mandela Award Winner, a former Kellogg National Fellow and has been featured as an ABC Television Person of the Week. In 1995, she became the first African-American woman and the first person under 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees.
Mayor Wright said he expects that because of the foundation that Benjamin has laid, the clinic in Bayou La Batre will go on after Benjamin is confirmed as surgeon general, and he’s willing to make a few sacrifices of his own.
“If I have to, I guess I’ll go to Washington, D.C. for my checkup,” he said. "It means we may be losing a good doctor, but it also means the whole United States will have a good doctor."
Denise Stewart is a regular contributor to The Root.