Born on October 26, 1956, in Mobile, Alabama, Regina Benjamin became a clinician who served the fishing community of Bayou La Batre, providing much needed medical care. She has been recognized widely for her humanitarian spirit and was appointed the 18th U.S. surgeon general by President Barack Obama, with Benjamin pushing forth wellness and prevention initiatives. She resigned in 2013.
Background and Education
Regina M. Benjamin was born on October 26, 1956, in Mobile, Alabama. After her parents split, she was brought up by her mother, who was a domestic worker and cosmetologist, in a Catholic household. (Benjamin's grandmother had held Mass in her own home and eventually helped in the establishment of an African-American church in their area.)
Later citing the women in her family as mentors and inspiration, Benjamin went on to Xavier University of Louisiana, graduating with a B.S. in 1979—and also interning with the C.I.A.—before attending Morehouse School of Medicine and receiving an M.D. from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, in 1984.
Clinic for Poor
Benjamin had received governmental funding for her medical school training which required her to serve as a physician in a designated community that needed physicians. Hence, in 1990, Benjamin established the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, which serves a fishing coastal community on the Gulf Coast whose citizens have often been unable to access appropriate health care due to lack of insurance, financial constraints and/or geographical issues. Benjamin also earned her M.B.A. from the University of Tulane, realizing she would need a business acumen to raise money for her clinic, and was able to access federal funds to help keep things afloat.
As a community clinician, Benjamin allowed patients to pay whatever they could, in whatever form and took on a variety of expenses from her own pocket. She became loved by her patients and was recognized by the media for her outstanding contributions. She has also been a model of perseverance, with the clinic needing to be rebuilt multiple times after Hurricane Georges, Hurricane Katrina and a fire.
Benjamin faced great personal loss as well. During her time in La Batre, her brother and sole sibling died from AIDS-related complications; their mother died a year later from cancer, though Benjamin has said she believed their mother suffered greatly from heartache over her son's death.
Benjamin became a recognized leader in her field, and thus was the first African-American woman and the first physician under age 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association's board of trustees in 1995. She followed years later in 2002 with another big achievement, becoming the first black woman to lead a state-based medical society with her position as president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.
18th U.S. Surgeon General
In 2008, Benjamin was a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. Then in the summer of 2009, Benjamin was nominated by President Barack Obama to be U.S. surgeon general, a post that allows for a leader to shape national conversations around health. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in October of that year.
During her tenure, Benjamin took on a wellness and prevention stance, helming initiatives that focused on individuals maintaining good health as opposed to a treat-sickness paradigm. As such, coordinating efforts with a number of federal agencies, she emphasized the importance of nutritious foods, regular exercise (including dance) and cessation of smoking. She also supported breastfeeding, including creating more spaces where women could do so comfortably, and exploring issues around suicide.
Benjamin resigned from her post during the summer of 2013, returning to her La Batre clinic. Over the length of her career thus far, she has received many honorary degrees and accolades, including the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights and the National Caring Award.
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