Obama Picks Rural Ala. Doctor For Surgeon General The president has picked Dr. Regina Benjamin, a rural Alabama family physician who made headlines with her fierce determination to rebuild her nonprofit medical clinic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
NPR logo Obama Picks Rural Ala. Doctor For Surgeon General

Obama Picks Rural Ala. Doctor For Surgeon General

President Obama on Monday nominated Alabama family practice physician Regina Benjamin — known for her efforts to rebuild a nonprofit medical clinic destroyed by hurricanes and fire — to serve as the surgeon general.

At an appearance before reporters in the Rose Garden, Obama praised Benjamin's dedication to serving impoverished Gulf Coast residents in the fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., saying she opted to open a nonprofit clinic on the Gulf Coast rather than moving to an area where she could make more money.

"If there's anyone who understands the urgency of meeting this (health care reform) challenge in a personal and powerful way, it's the woman who will become our nation's next surgeon general," Obama said.

Benjamin said she was honored by the prospect of becoming the nation's chief health advocate and has a personal stake in improving the health care system.

Benjamin's closest family members died of preventable diseases — her father died of diabetes and hypertension; a brother died of HIV-related illness and her mother, a smoker, died of lung cancer.

Benjamin said her uncle is on oxygen therapy for breathing problems caused by years of smoking.

As surgeon general, Benjamin said she aims to focus on wellness and prevention plans to keep other families from losing loved ones to preventable illnesses.

"My hope is to be America's doctor, America's family physician," she said. "I want to ensure that no one, no one, falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system."

Born in 1956, Benjamin received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and completed her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia. She later earned a master's degree in business administration from Tulane University.

She said she returned to Alabama after completing her residency to fulfill her commitment to the National Health Service Corps, a program that provides medical education assistance in exchange for community service. She decided to stay because she recognized he intense need.

As a small-town doctor, Benjamin moonlighted in emergency rooms and nursing homes until she could convert her office into a rural health clinic, according to her Web site. She founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990, serving community of 2,500, including a large number of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

The clinic provides physical exams, routine medical care, preventive care, lab work and minor surgeries regardless of whether patients have medical insurance or the money to pay for their care.

When the clinic was wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Benjamin treated her patients in their homes and mortgaged her house to rebuild, the president said.

The clinic was destroyed a third time by a fire, leaving Benjamin and the community to dedicate themselves to rebuilding again with donations.

"Through floods and fires and severe wont, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up," Obama said.

Benjamin's work has been recognized often. She was elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees in 1995, making her the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected. In 1998, she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She is also a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

In addition to her work on the Gulf Coast, Benjamin has done missionary work in Honduras and serves as a board member for the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights, the clinic Web site states.

If she is confirmed, Benjamin would direct the operations of the 6,000-member U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a team of health professionals that promotes public health and disease prevention programs.

She also would serve as the country's top educator on health matters ranging from childhood obesity to eliminating health disparities. The office is under the Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseen by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Obama also said the Congress is inching toward passing a health care package that would enable more Americans to access health care and cut the rising costs of premiums. He said he expects Benjamin to be an asset in working putting the administration's health care initiatives into place.

Related NPR Stories