Doc in the house

Say whatever you want about President Obama’s selections to the cabinet and courts, but you can’t deny they often have fascinating personal journeys.

Sonia Sotomayor? No. Regina Benjamin. She has been selected to be the next surgeon general.

She founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, then rebuilt it when Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Then had to rebuild it again, according to President Barack Obama.

When Hurricane George destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time. She tended to those who had been wounded in the storm, and when folks needed medicine, she asked the pharmacist to send the bill her way.

And when Regina’s clinic was about to open for the third time, and a fire burned it to the ground before it could serve the first patient, well, you can guess what Dr. Benjamin did. With help from her community, she is rebuilding it again. One disabled patient brought her an envelope with $20 inside. Another elderly man said simply, “Maybe I can help. I got a hammer.”

She’s not it in for the money. There are only 2,500 residents in the town where it’s located.

She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2008:

She has established a family practice that allows her to treat all incoming patients, many of whom are uninsured, and frequently travels by pickup truck to care for the most isolated and immobile in her region. Benjamin is skilled, as well, in translating research on preventive health measures into accessible, community-based interventions to decrease the disease burdens of her diverse patient base, which includes immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, who comprise a third of Bayou La Batre’s population. A committed local physician, she also plays key roles statewide and nationally, helping others establish clinics in remote areas of the country and serving in leadership positions in such health-related organizations as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. With a deep, firsthand knowledge of the pressing needs and health disparities afflicting rural, high-poverty communities, Benjamin is ensuring that the most vulnerable among us have access to high-quality care.

She had big plans for the money: Expanding the clinic:

She’s also the first African American woman to serve on the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.

Back in 1995, she was named Person of the Week on the late Peter Jennings’ nightly news program.

It’s not clear now, however, what happens to the clinic when she leaves town.

(h/t: Chris Worthington)

Here are her remarks today:

My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother, and only sibling, died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer, because as a young girl, she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother could. My Uncle Buddy, my mother’s twin, who’s one of the few surviving black World War II prisoners of war, is at home right now, on oxygen, struggling for each breath because of the years of smoking.

My family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases. While I can’t — or 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 for the future.

These are trying times in the health care field. And as a nation, we have reached a sobering realization: Our health care system simply cannot continue on the path that we’re on. Millions of Americans can’t afford health insurance, or they don’t have the basic health services available where they live. I went back home to Alabama as part of my obligation to the National Health Service Corps. It’s a program that provides underserved communities in America with qualified clinicians. The National Health Service Corps paid for my medical school education, and in return placed me in an area that desperately needed physicians, and I stayed.

So, in 1990, I founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama. And as a physician, my priority has always been the needs of my patients. I decided I would treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. However, it’s not been a easy road. As has been explained, hurricanes destroyed my office and devastated our community. And for years I’ve worked to find resources to sustain a doctor’s office that treats patients without health insurance or the ability to pay out of their pockets.

It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients. It shouldn’t be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country. And, Mr. President, thank you for putting health care reform at the top of your domestic agenda.

My hope, if confirmed as Surgeon General, is to be America’s doctor, America’s family physician. As we work toward a solution to this health care crisis, I promise to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with health care reform.

I want to ensure that no one — no one — falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system. I will also work to shine a light on the inspiring work of the 6,200 members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. These men and women serve on the front lines in the nation’s fight against disease and poor health conditions.

I’d like to close by thanking two of my medical school professors. First, former Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, who instilled in me a passion for community medicine. As a medical student, he required me to go out into these small towns, spend time with rural physicians and participate in public health projects. Those experiences no doubt led me to open my practice in Bayou La Batre.

I must also thank former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan was my dean and he taught me hematology. But more importantly, he taught me leadership. From him I learned how to impact policy at the federal, state, and local levels to help our patients and to help our community. I am indebted to both of my mentors.

And, finally, I’d like to thank my staff and my patients at our rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre. All of the work over the past 20 years have been for them and for patients like them, and today is no different. So thank you, Mr. President, for having the confidence in me. And if confirmed, I promise I will give you and the American people my best.

Thank you. (Applause.)

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