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Alumna Becomes America's Doctor

By Jo Lynn Orr

Regina Benjamin
Regina Benjamin became U.S. surgeon general in January 2010.

Regina Benjamin, M.D., knows a thing or two about fish. She grew up in Daphne, Alabama, and established a clinic in the seaside village of Bayou La Batre, where she once accepted a basket of fish as payment from a patient. And when she visited UAB in February for Medical Alumni Weekend, the 18th surgeon general of the United States Public Health Service shared a story about—naturally—fish:

“A young woman, jogging along the beach one morning, saw an older gentleman tossing starfish back into the water. ‘There are hundreds of starfish along this beach, and soon the sun will be high enough to kill them all,’ the woman said. ‘Throwing a few back is not going to make a difference, so why are you doing it?’ The old man looked at her for a moment, and then picked up a starfish. He said, ‘Because it will make a difference to this starfish,’ as he tossed it into the water.”

The story, Benjamin told her colleagues, serves as an inspiration: “I hope that we will all go back to our communities, find our own starfish, and make a difference in its life.”

Benjamin’s efforts to improve lives in her own community have become legendary. Now, as surgeon general, she hopes to make a positive difference on the health of all Americans.

Trial by Fire—and Floods

Benjamin graduated from the School of Medicine in 1984, having already attended Xavier University and the Morehouse School of Medicine. She opened her Bayou La Batre clinic following a family-practice residency at the Medical Center of Central Georgia.

She faced challenges from the start, working in emergency rooms and nursing homes to keep her doors open. To gain more business experience, she earned a Master of Business Administration degree at Tulane University. Soon afterward, Benjamin converted her office into a nonprofit rural health clinic.

Regina Benjamin student photo
Regina Benjamin as a UAB medical student (Photo courtesy of UAB Archives)

Benjamin rebuilt that clinic three times—after hurricanes Georges and Katrina destroyed it in 1998 and 2005, and again after a fire in 2006. She never doubted that she would rebuild—or remain in Bayou La Batre. In fact, Benjamin made house calls in her truck after Georges came through. Following Katrina, which leveled most of her patients’ homes, she opened a makeshift infirmary at the local community center.

Benjamin says she has a keen understanding of the character and economic circumstances of her working-class patients, and today, more than 4,000 people, including uninsured patients, rely on her clinic for medical care. Reflecting Benjamin’s creed to help anyone needing treatment, the clinic charges fees on a sliding scale.

Prescription for a Nation

In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Benjamin as surgeon general; she took office this January. Now, as America’s chief health educator, she may face her greatest challenge yet: helping the country beat the obesity epidemic. Her national agenda includes working with First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to help Americans lead healthier lives through better nutrition, regular physical activity, and improving communities to support healthy choices.

“I want to bring understanding and clarity to the national conversation about health and health care,” Benjamin told her fellow SOM alumni. She also touched on health-care reform. “I’m looking forward to the day when patients can have access to affordable, quality health care because I’ve seen what being uninsured can do—a simple infection can become the catalyst for surgery, uncontrolled hypertension can lead to debilitating stroke, and uncontrolled diabetes can lead to amputations.”

Offering Help and Hope

At Medical Alumni Weekend, Benjamin received the SOM Distinguished Alumnus Award and a “native daughter” resolution from the Alabama Legislature for her accomplishments and efforts to help the underserved and uninsured.

In her speech, Benjamin kept returning to those patients in need, urging alumni to reach out to them. “You never know who’s watching you,” she said, relating a story about a young Bayou La Batre girl who came to UAB for medical treatment. The girl was so impressed with UAB’s many buildings that she told Benjamin she would like to clean them when she grew up. Careful in her response, Benjamin explained that besides cleaning UAB’s buildings, the girl also could sit in the classrooms as a student, learn how to start her own cleaning business, and then contract to clean every building in the state if she wanted. “I didn’t want her to think there was anything wrong with cleaning buildings—because there isn’t—but I also wanted her to know that she had options.”

For Benjamin, the encounter illustrates the power of setting an example and connecting with patients. These efforts, she says, can make a lasting impact on the health and lives of people everywhere—and perhaps change the future for a few more starfish.


Five Questions for the Surgeon General

1. UAB Medicine: How has your UAB medical education prepared you for the role of surgeon general?

Benjamin: I couldn’t have had better preparation. You get the best of all worlds at an academic health center like UAB. I recall going to Boston, and we were light years ahead of the other residents because we had clinical experience. SOM students also participate in acting internships. You’re treated as if you were already an intern; you have to make decisions and be responsible for them. So when I became an intern, I was ready. That background and the relationships I built through the years at UAB and in Alabama helped prepare me for the national stage.

There also was no better preparation than being in the trenches at the Bayou La Batre clinic, dealing one on one with patients. And in terms of politics, Alabama politics is probably as tough as it comes. My experiences definitely prepared me for Washington politics. But local politics is always harder because you know the individuals. You see them face to face, and you’re going to see them again, so you have to be straight with them. Each day you must contend with questions such as, “what will this medicine do for me” or “how am I going to pay this bill and still feed my family?”

2. UAB Medicine: What do you hope will result from President Obama’s health-care reform efforts?

Benjamin: I hope that we can have quality, affordable health care that’s available to everybody. I also hope that as physicians, we wouldn’t have to beg and plead to get services for our patients—that we can easily get them the treatments they need. In general, I would like for any reforms to just make it easier to practice medicine—for both patients and doctors.

3. UAB Medicine: Regarding the fight against childhood obesity, do you plan to use social media to broadcast your message?

Benjamin: With the “Let’s Move” initiative that Michelle Obama has launched, there are no bounds in getting the message out to parents and kids. We’re doing a number of public service announcements, and a comprehensive social-media campaign is associated with them. We’re definitely using varied media tools to reach kids, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks.

4. UAB Medicine: As head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, how will you use the Corps to implement your goals?

Benjamin: There are 6,500 members of the Commissioned Corps stationed throughout the world—some are scientists, while others are clinicians and administrators—and they all will follow and implement the surgeon general’s directives. We’re also looking at the Healthy People 2020 program, which provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for promoting health and preventing disease, to see how the Commissioned Corps can help implement its objectives wherever they are stationed and spread the program’s message to the public.

5. UAB Medicine: What is your advice for SOM students and alumni?

Benjamin: I’m very proud to be an SOM alumna. When you’re in medical school, you don’t think about it much, but the relationships that you build up through the years are so important, and you want to make sure you nurture them. As you move through your career, there are only so many people who will understand what you go through in practicing medicine. You will find that the relationships you have built with colleagues, alumni, and professors are invaluable, because you know you can pick up the phone and call them, and they will be there for you.