So who exactly is Regina Benjamin, Obama's pick for U.S. Surgeon General? For starters, Dr. Benjamin spent many years as the only doctor in impoverished Bayou La Batre, Alabama, where Obama says, "When people couldn't pay, she didn't charge them."
The 52-year-old Benjamin got her medical degree from the University of Alabama, and began practicing in rural areas as part of her service for the National Health Services Corps. But she stayed in small-town Alabama long after her service with the Corps was over (participants pledge to work for a year in exchange for each year of tuition), and in 1990 she founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic. The clinic serves what resident Frank Morse calls, "a town of poor people, generational fishermen, their father done it and their grandfather." A third of the residents are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, 80% are below the poverty line, many have injuries from their demanding jobs hoisting nets full of shrimp, and many lack health insurance. Benjamin's experiences in Bayou La Batre have made her a passionate advocate for those unable to pay for their care. She says,
As we work toward a solution to this health care crisis, I promise to communicate directly to the American people, to help guide them through whatever changes come with health care reform. I want to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.
Dr. Linda Rosenstock of UCLA says Benjamin "understands well the value of prevention, which is going to be the cornerstone of any healthcare reform, if it's going to make sense." In a 1997 speech, Benjamin herself said, "my family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases" — her brother died of complications of HIV, her father of diabetes, and her mother of lung cancer. She says, "I cannot change my family's past, but I can be a voice to improve our nation's health for the future."
In many cases, Benjamin's efforts at improvement have meant personal sacrifices. Gardiner Harris of the NY Times writes,
When Hurricane Georges sent five feet of water surging into the clinic in 1998, she made house calls until it was rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the clinic again seven years later, she mortgaged her house to rebuild. And when a fire destroyed the rebuilt clinic the day before it was set to reopen, she sent out appeals across the country for aid to build again.
Benjamin often allowed patients to pay her in "cakes, smoked fish, and shrimp," and when her clinic had financial difficulties, she did not take a salary. The mayor of Bayou La Batre says the clinic owes her over $300,000.
Benjamin received a MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her work in Bayou La Batre, and Harris writes of her "willingness to sacrifice - something health care reform may ask of many more doctors." But individual doctors shouldn't have to mortgage their homes or forgo a salary so that people can get the treatment they need. While Benjamin's achievements make her an ideal choice for the public voice of health care in America, they also make her a symbol of something that needs to end — altruistic citizens being forced to shoulder the burden of our nation's lack of adequate social services. As Benjamin herself said, "It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients. It shouldn't be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country." Let's hope Benjamin's appointment is the first step in making it easier.
A Doctor From The Bayou [NYT]
Obama's Surgeon General Pick Started Rural Alabama Clinic [LA Times]
Regina Benjamin: Obama's Surgeon General Pick [Time]
Dr. Regina Benjamin Is Surgeon General Choice [CNN]
Can A Doctor To The Poor Help Fix Our Health Care System? [Double X]