President Obama has reached down into the deep south for the next Surgeon General, choosing a rural family doctor who has spent her life caring for the poor along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. At a Rose Garden ceremony this morning, Obama tabbed Dr. Regina Benjamin as the nation's next top doctor:
"Regina Benjamin represents what's best about health care in America. Doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients -- those Americans who would do anything to heal their fellow citizens."
The 52-year-old Benjamin received a bachelor's degree in 1979 from Xavier University of Louisiana, attended Morehouse School of Medicine from 1980-82, and received a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1984. She completed her residency in family practice at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987.
Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990 in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, and has served as its CEO since. Many of her patients are poor immigrants who have no medical insurance:
"My priority has always been the needs of my patients.I decided to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay."
President Obama called her a "relentless promoter for prevention and wellness programs, having treated too many costly diseases and complications that didn't have to happen." But to Benjamin, it's personal as well as professional. Her family has been devastated by preventable diseases. Her father died of diabetes and high blood pressure; her older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of an HIV-related illness; her mother died of lung cancer after taking up smoking as a girl; her mother's twin brother could not attend because he is at home "struggling for each breath" after a lifetime of smoking:
"I cannot change my family's past, but I can be a voice to improve our nation's health for the future."
She praised the president for pushing ahead with health care reform. And she promised if she's confirmed by the senate, she will help people wade through the new laws:
"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."