Surgeon general pick has Macon ties

President Obama’s pick to be the next surgeon general got her start in Macon.

The promise Dr. Regina Benjamin showed in her three-year, family-practice residency at The Medical Center of Central Georgia in the mid-1980s was recalled Monday by one of the doctors who trained her.

“Certain residents, as you teach over the years, they’ll always sort of stick out in your mind as being outstanding personalities. You just sort of know from the beginning they’re going to do well,” said Dr. Frank Bowyer, medical director and chief of pediatrics for Macon’s Children’s Hospital.

“She had such a quiet demeanor and was one of those highly effective people in her interactions. She always did her work well and she was a strong patient advocate from the beginning.”

That appears to be one of the reasons Obama turned to Benjamin, 52, a rural Alabama family physician who made headlines with fierce determination to rebuild her nonprofit medical clinic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Benjamin is known along Alabama’s impoverished Gulf Coast as a country doctor who makes house calls and doesn’t turn away patients who can’t pay — even as she’s had to find the money to rebuild a clinic repeatedly destroyed by hurricanes and once by fire.

“For all the tremendous obstacles that she has overcome, Regina Benjamin also represents what’s best about health care in America — doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients,” Obama said Monday introducing his choice for a job known as America’s doctor.

The president said Benjamin, a 1982 Morehouse School of Medicine graduate, “has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health-care system” and that Benjamin will bring important insight as his administration tries to revamp that system.

Benjamin called the job “a physician’s dream,” and pledged to be a voice for patients in need — and to fight the preventable diseases that claim too many lives each year, including nearly her entire family.

Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure, her only brother as a result of having HIV, her mother of lung cancer “because as a young girl, she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother could” — an uncle now on oxygen as a result, she noted.

“I cannot change my family’s past. I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s health care and our nation’s health,” Benjamin said.

“I want to be sure that no one falls through the cracks as we improve our health-care system.”

The surgeon general is the people’s health advocate, a bully pulpit position that can be tremendously effective with a forceful personality. Benjamin has that reputation.

Pushed by the need in her own shrimping community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., and its diverse patient mix — white, black and, increasingly immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — Benjamin has emerged as a national leader in the call to improve health disparities.

The Medical Center’s Bowyer lauded Benjamin as a doctor who has been “down in the trenches, working with families.”

He said he has followed Benjamin’s career after her 1984-1987 residency at the midstate’s largest hospital.

“If you looked at where she went and started in areas, you’d think, ‘Oh my goodness, what a dead-end street.’ And yet she’s just taken that experience and done an outstanding job with it. A very, very capable young lady,” Bowyer said. “She was one that always stuck out in my mind. ... I just thought, ‘Wow, you go girl.’”

He added, “I guess we’d love to think that we helped influence her some way or the other.”

Benjamin became the first black woman and the first doctor under age 40 elected to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, and in 2002 became the first black woman to head a state medical society.

“She’s always been very ambitious from a political standpoint. She has always, always been motivated by that ambition,” said Dr. James Holland, CEO of Mostellar Medical Center in nearby Irvington, Ala., where Benjamin spent about three years in the early 1980s as a National Health Service Corps scholar.

Holland said Benjamin’s selection as surgeon general “doesn’t surprise me at all. The only thing that surprises me is that it hasn’t happened before now.”

Medical groups welcomed her ability for straight-talk, whether to patients or politicians, about the dire health needs of much of the country.

“We want to emphasize prevention, primary care and early intervention, and we have somebody now who does that for a living,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, no relation, of the American Public Health Association.

Added AMA President Dr. James Rohack, who has known Benjamin for more than two decades, with “her recognition that if you don’t have health insurance, you live sicker and you die younger. She can bring the real-world perspective as surgeon general of the things as a nation we need to do to keep ourselves healthy.”

Benjamin’s nomination for surgeon general requires Senate confirmation.