President Obama has announced his selection of Xavier University of Louisiana alumna Dr. Regina Benjamin as the Surgeon General. The 52 year-old Benjamin is a family practice physician who has spent the majority of her career taking care of poor patients on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. The President noted Dr. Benjamin’s commitment to the poor, remarking, “When people couldn’t pay, she didn’t charge them. When the clinic wasn’t making money, she didn’t take a salary for herself.” He called her a “relentless promoter” of preventive medicine.
Dr. Benjamin’s life reads like a script for a movie on the impact of preventable illness. Her father died of diabetes and high blood pressure and her mother succumbed to lung cancer, the result of smoking since childhood. Her only sibling, an older brother, died from an HIV related illness. An uncle, her mother’s brother, could not attend the formal announcement of Dr. Benjamin’s appointment because he is at home suffering from the ill effects of smoking. She noted the toll that preventable illness has played on her family and pointed out it is the reason no family members were present at the announcement. Dr. Benjamin said, “I cannot change my family’s past, but I can be a voice to improve our nation’s health for the future.”
Her appointment comes as the nation continues to grapple with a host of public health issues, from the onslaught of swine flu to HIV-AIDS and diabetes, and breast cancer. While much progress has been made in confronting certain illnesses, there are still clear racial discrepancies in their impact. One long-standing public health crisis, the effect of cigarette tobacco, has come full circle with its recent designation as a regulated substance under the Food and Drug Administration. Given Dr. Benjamin’s personal history, her tenure as Surgeon General will likely be marked by aggressive efforts to educate the public on effective prevention strategies.
Dr. Benjamin earned her undergraduate degree from Xavier University in 1979, and from there went on to the Morehouse School of Medicine. She completed her medical degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1984. Dr. Benjamin completed her residency at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987. It is noteworthy that her medical education was funded by the National Health Services Corps, a federal program that covers the tuition of med students who agree to work in underserved areas. In 1991, she earned a master’s degree in business administration from Tulane University. Three years later Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Health Clinic, serving as its CEO. The clinic was heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and burned to the ground several years ago.
Despite the setbacks, Benjamin rebuilt the clinic and continued to provide medical care. Dr. Benjamin was the first person under age 40 to serve on the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association (AMA), the voice of the nation’s medical practitioners. She served on the AMA board from 1995 through 1998. In the early part of this decade, Dr. Benjamin served as Associate Dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama.
Her appointment requires confirmation by the United States Senate.