From storm-tossed Ala. clinic to top doctor post
by Desiree Hunter, Associated Press
Battered and flooded by Hurricane Katrina, this coastal Alabama fishing village was in wreckage four years ago when Dr. Regina Benjamin began assessing her patients’ needs. Trouble was, her little health clinic had been flooded and they couldn’t come to see her.
So she went to them.
She could be seen “going door-to-door in all that mud and sewer, just a mess from her head to her toes with boots on,” Stan Wright, one of her patients, said Monday, hours after Benjamin was nominated by President Barack Obama to be U.S. surgeon general.
“It’d be way before we’d open the roads up for traffic and I was concerned she was going to run into a big washout hole or something, but she’d put on her rain coat and boots and get her little doctor’s bag and say, ‘I’m going to go check on my patients’,” said Wright, the town’s mayor.
People across the bayou voiced pride that Obama had reached into a rural, economically struggling area for a physician to become the nation’s top doctor.
“I’m shocked. It’s good news. Nothing that good ever happens in the bayou,” said Jason Ngam (NAM’), 20, who is not a patient at the clinic but like many others is familiar with it.
After Katrina ruined the nonprofit clinic — as another hurricane had done several years before — Benjamin laid out medical charts to dry in the post-storm sun and pointed out the need for electronic records that would be invulnerable to hurricanes.
Rebuilt by volunteers, the clinic burned down just as it was about to reopen after Katrina. Awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last fall, Benjamin promised to use the money to help finish the job.
Today, the temporary clinic is a small brick building next to City Hall with a wooden ramp leading to its door. Behind it stands another building three times its size that will be the new clinic, which is to be completed when more money comes in.
On Monday, the 52-year-old Benjamin pledged to take her fight from the rural, impoverished outpost to the top tier of American medicine so that “no one falls through the cracks.”
Her focus has long been on preventable disease and she will continue in that line. It’s a cause she knows personally and three times over. Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure, her mother died of lung cancer after years of smoking and she lost her only brother to HIV.
“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.”
Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Obama noted the obstacles Benjamin has overcome and said she “represents what’s best about health care in America, doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients.”
The diverse patient mix of Bayou La Batre — white, black and, increasingly, immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — was evident Monday as a steady rotation of people visited the clinic.
Waiting patients were treated to a nearly constant chorus of rings from the practice’s two telephone lines as people called to offer congratulations and support.
If confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin would assume a job as the people’s health advocate, a bully pulpit position that can be tremendously effective when paired with an effective personality.
Benjamin won’t have any problem combining the powerful position with her personality to produce results for the country, said Elorise Bradley, who has been a patient of Benjamin’s for the past three years.
“She has a personality that I’ve never really seen in a person that is a doctor. She’s just sweet and she’s funny sometimes but very, very stern,” she said. “Whatever she says, she means it. She’s gotten on me a couple of times about medication when I don’t do it right or take it on time — she’ll get you.”
Benjamin, a Daphne native, 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 served as a National Health Service Corps scholar with Mostellar Medical Center in nearby Irvington in the 1980s, which helped her pay off student loans from medical school and later went to Tulane where she earned a master’s degree in business administration.
But despite all her accomplishments, she hasn’t lost her down-to-earth ways, said Ruth Marchand, a resident of nearby Grand Bay.
Her son Al went to fix the clinic’s air conditioner once and went in to see a woman mopping the floor where the cooling unit had fallen to the ground.
“He told the lady he was there to see the doctor and she said ‘I’m the doctor,'” Marchand said, adding that her son had told the story as an example of the doctor’s humility. “That impressed Al to think that she wasn’t too good to mop the floor.”