BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. (AP) — When Hurricane Katrina wrecked the little clinic here in the coastal backwaters of Alabama, Dr. Regina Benjamin laid out medical charts to dry in the post-storm sun and hopped in a pickup truck to check on her patients.
When she had trouble treating the growing influx of Southeast Asian immigrants in the shrimping community because she could not understand them, she went to a nearby Vietnamese pool hall to find an interpreter.
Benjamin, 52, was nominated by President Barack Obama on Monday to be U.S. surgeon general, pledging to take her fight from a rural, impoverished outpost to the top tier of American medicine so that “no one falls through the cracks.”
She said she would combat preventable diseases. Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure, her only brother of HIV. Her mother died of lung cancer because as a girl “she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother,” an uncle now on oxygen.
“I cannot change my family's past. I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's health care and our nation's health,” Benjamin said. “I want to be sure that no one falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system.”
Pushed by the diverse patient mix of Bayou La Batre – white, black and, increasingly, immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – Benjamin has emerged as a national leader in the fight to close gaps in health.
She became the first black woman and the first doctor under age 40 elected to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, and in 2002 became the first black woman to head a state medical society.
“For 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,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.
After Katrina ruined the clinic in Bayou La Batre, Benjamin pointed out the need for electronic records that would be invulnerable to hurricanes.
It was rebuilt by volunteers – then burned down just as it was about to reopen. Her patients were so desperate for it to reopen that Benjamin later recalled a woman handing her an envelope containing $7.
“If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest,” Benjamin said last fall as she received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and promised to use the money to help finish the job.
Today, the clinic is a small brick building next to City Hall with a wooden ramp leading to its door. Alice Gallops, who started going there after moving to the bayou last year, said she was shocked Monday to turn on the television and see Benjamin was the nominee.
“I think it's wonderful, after Katrina destroyed so many people's homes and their lives, this lady went around helping people at their homes and making house calls,” she said. “She does so many great things from her heart.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin would assume a job as the people's health advocate, a bully-pulpit position that can be tremendously effective when paired with an effective personality.
Dr. James Holland, CEO of Mostellar Medical Center in nearby Irvington, where Benjamin spent about three years in the early 1980s as a National Health Service Corps scholar, said Benjamin has always been “very ambitious from a political standpoint.”
Toward the end of her service at Mostellar, she went to Tulane University to work on a master's degree in business administration, signaling bigger plans, Holland said.
“It is unusual and it’s also an indicator when you see a physician working on an MBA, especially from a good school like that, you’re expecting that they have desires to advance in the political field,” he said.
Medical groups welcomed her ability for straight talk, whether to patients or politicians, about the dire health needs of the country.
“We want to emphasize prevention, primary care and early intervention, and we have somebody now who does that for a living,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, no relation to the nominee, of the American Public Health Association.
American Medical Association President Dr. James Rohack, who has known Benjamin for more than two decades, said Benjamin recognizes “if you don’t have health insurance, you live sicker and you die younger.
“She can bring the real-world perspective as surgeon general of the things as a nation we need to do to keep ourselves healthy,” he said.
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard reported from Washington.
Photo: Dr. Regina Benjamin