Perservering Doctor Picked For Surgeon General

President Obama has made his choice for U.S. surgeon general. Regina Benjamin's clinic in Alabama was destroyed twice by hurricanes and once by a fire. She's also a MacArthur fellow who was the first minority to sit on the board of the American Medical Association.

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Regina Benjamin is a small town physician. She may be the next surgeon general. President Obama announced Dr. Benjamin as his nominee today. He emphasized her southern roots and he praised her work with the poor and with immigrants.

NPR's Brenda Wilson has more.

BRENDA WILSON: For two decades, Dr. Regina Benjamin has worked at a clinic in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a town of about 2,500 people. Most of the people who come to her clinic are poor, blacks, whites, Laotians and Cambodians. NPR caught up with her in 2005, shortly after her clinic was destroyed by a hurricane for a second time - by hurricane Katrina.

(Soundbite of crying)

Dr. REGINA BENJAMIN (Surgeon General Nominee): I have the experience of having gone through hurricane Georges, when we lost things then in '98. Took two years to rebuild, and during that time I just saw people out of my truck. I even did house calls.

WILSON: When the clinic was finally rebuilt, it was destroyed again by fire. Benjamin is known not only for her work in Bayou La Batre, she's a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and an associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama, College of Medicine. She was the first African-American woman and youngest physician elected to the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees. The U.S. surgeon general serves as the country's leading voice on public health. Benjamin says she understands the importance of public health from personal experience.

Dr. BENJAMIN: My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer, because as a young girl she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother could.

WILSON: She says she can't change her family's past, but she can be a voice for the nation's health care future. Drew Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation met Benjamin more than a decade ago, when she served on their commission on Medicaid and the uninsured. He says she's a superb communicator.

Dr. DREW ALTMAN (President, Kaiser Family Foundation): And that's what the surgeon general does. And she will connect with the American people about personal health care issues, about public health care issues, about the delivery of health care and financing of health care issues in truly effective ways. And she has learned to do that in (unintelligible), dealing with people, just regular patients, but also in the corridors of power in Washington D.C.

WILSON: This is the administration's second attempt to fill the post. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta opted not to take the job.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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