A patient who couldn’t pay Dr. Regina Benjamin in cash once dropped off a sack of oysters to thank her for treating him. The gift didn’t come as a surprise to Benjamin, who after medical school started a family practice in her hometown, the small shrimping village Bayou La Batre, Ala.
Dr. Kim Edward LeBlanc, who worked with Benjamin on the Federation of State Medical Boards, recalls how Benjamin would laugh, telling colleagues that she loved seafood-while understanding that shellfish were sometimes all that her patients from the “seafood capital of the world” could give. “She sees anyone,” LeBlanc says. “It doesn’t matter if you can pay or not.”
Since starting her practice in 1990, Benjamin, 52, has become an advocate for patients everywhere. She became the first African-American woman to lead a state medical society and has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and a Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. Still, she never strayed far from her roots, and currently serves as the CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, which she founded. This week, President Obama tapped Benjamin to serve as surgeon general. Specialists in rural medicine say the experience she gained as a small-town physician will translate well to the high-powered world of Washington politics.
Often called America’s top doctor, the surgeon general oversees the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, shares the latest developments in public-health science with the American people, and calls both the public’s and the president’s attention to selected issues in health and health policy. Most previous surgeons general have come from either government or academia. While Benjamin has credentials worthy of the position, she has committed her life to primary care in underserved rural communities.
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