Jody Victor Talks About Dr. Regina Benjamin

“I hope I can make a difference one person at a time. By making a patient feel better, by being able to tell a mother that her baby is going to be OK. Whether her baby is four or forty-four the look on the mother’s face is the same.”

– Dr. Regina Benjamin

On July 13, 2009 President Obama announced his nominee for the U.S. Surgeon General – Dr. Regina Benjamin. The Office of the Surgeon General, under the direction of the Surgeon General, oversees the operations of the 6,000-member corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. The Office is part of the Office of Public Health and Science in the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General serves as America’s chief of health education. The Surgeon General provides Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve citizens’ health and reduce the risk of injury and illness. In his announcement President Obama stated, “But for all that she’s seen and all the tremendous obstacles that she has overcome, Regina Benjamin also represents what’s best about health care in America- doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients; those Americans who would do anything to heal a fellow citizen.”

Regina Benjamin was born on October 26, 1956 in Mobile, Alabama. Their single mother raised Regina and her only sibling, an older brother, in nearby Daphne, Alabama. When hard times hit her family they had to sell their land. They took trips to the Gulf of Mexico to catch crabs, shrimp, and fish to feed themselves. Regina’s grandmother was strong willed and compassionate. Her grandmother helped start a Catholic church for African-Americans in their community. Mass was held in her living room until someone donated property and convinced the Bishop to declare it a Mission. The church was built using an old Army barracks. During the Depression her grandmother would leave sandwiches and lemonade outside her home for the hobos (black and white) who came by. Even though Regina’s grandmother died when she was only 9 years old, her mother kept grandma’s values alive in her children.

Following high school graduation Regina Benjamin attended college at Xavier University of Louisiana and earned her B.S. degree in chemistry in 1979. She then attended Morehouse School of Medicine (a two year school at the time) from 1980 to 1982. Regina transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and received her M.D. in 1984. Dr. Benjamin completed her residency in family practice at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987. In 1991 she earned an M.B.A. from Tulane University in Louisiana.

Dr. Benjamin chose to return to the region where she grew up. She started a family practice in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, a small fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. Bayou la Batre is a town of about 2,500 people. She moonlighted at emergency rooms and nursing homes to keep her practice open. With an M.B.A. in her tool kit, she converted her medical office into a small rural health clinic, the Bayou Rural Health Clinic, and dedicated her work to serving the large indigent population in her community. Many of her patients are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Eighty percent of her patients live below the poverty line. She is their only physician. She frequently travels by pickup truck to care for her most isolated and immobile patients.

Like many of her patients, Dr. Benjamin’s clinic has suffered its own life-threatening challenges. Hurricane George destroyed the clinic in 1998. While it was being rebuilt, Dr. Benjamin made house calls to all her patients. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the clinic again in 2005. Most of her town was left homeless. She mortgaged her own home and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild the clinic a second time. She tended to her patients and kept track of the ones who were relocated to emergency shelters. And when she prescribed medicine for them, she had the pharmacist send her the bill. When the clinic was one day away from opening for the third time, a fire burned it to the ground. With help from the community, which she has served for two decades, she is rebuilding once more. One of her disabled patients gave her an envelope with twenty dollars in it. Another patient who couldn’t bring money brought a hammer.

Dr. Regina Benjamin has so far had a well-earned and distinguished career in medicine. She has served as Chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States and as the Associate Dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama. She was chosen as President of the Medical Association of Alabama, the first African American woman to be president of a state medical society. Dr. Benjamin was also the first African-American woman and physician under the age of 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. In 1998 she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. She is a former Kellogg National fellow. She was featured on ABC’s “Person of the Week”; Reader’s Digest’s “Everyday Heroes” and was chosen by CBS as “Woman of the Year” in 1996. She has served on many boards such as Florida A&M University, Federation of State Medical Boards, American Board of Family Practice, the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Mobil Area Red Cross, Mobile Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Mobile, Physicians for Human Rights and the Deep South Girl Scout Council.