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Obama Picks Regina Benjamin As Surgeon General

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. President Obama has tapped for the nation's top doctor a rural family physician. At a Rose Garden ceremony yesterday, Mr. Obama nominated Dr. Regina Benjamin to be the U.S. surgeon general.

BARACK OBAMA: For nearly two decades Dr. Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Benjamin runs a non-profit health clinic on the Alabama Gulf Coast. And that's where NPR's Debbie Elliott begins this profile.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Bayou La Batre, Alabama gets its name from the finger of water that connects the tiny fishing village to its livelihood, the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Regina Benjamin is as much a fixture here as the shrimp trawlers made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump." Her clinic is a squat gray brick building right next door to Bayou La Batre city hall, where everyone was all smiles after President Obama's announcement, especially Mayor Stan Wright.

STAN WRIGHT: I'm proud to be her friend. I'm proud to serve on her board of directors. And I'm proud to be the mayor of the community that she served.

ELLIOTT: He's also her patient. And Dr. Benjamin would no doubt not approve of the wad of tobacco stuffed in his cheek. Benjamin has worked for more than 20 years to promote healthier lifestyles in this hardscrabble town of about 2,500. Her patients are mostly those who fall between the cracks of Medicaid and private insurance. And Mayor Wright says she's cleared many a hurdle along the way, most recently Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed her clinic and devastated the bayou.

WRIGHT: When the water was knee deep high, she was knee deep in water. She was worried about her patients. She got in that old Toyota four-wheel drive truck. She went door to door. She wouldn't sleep until everybody was taken care of.

ELLIOTT: It was the second time in less than 10 years that hurricane flood waters washed away her clinic. And then a year after Katrina, her rebuilt clinic burned down. Despite the hardships, no one in Bayou La Batre was denied health care. Not the out-of-work seafood processors or the Southeast Asian immigrants who had lost their boats in the storm. Mayor Wright says that's what Regina Benjamin will see to as surgeon general.

WRIGHT: She'll do whatever she's got to do to make sure everybody's taken care of. And that's the way she does here. You got treated if you had money or not. There's been people in the past would bring her a pint of oysters or two fish for their payment. She was tickled to death with it.

ELLIOTT: For years, Benjamin would moonlight in emergency rooms and nursing homes just to keep the clinic afloat. At the White House yesterday she called being nominated surgeon general a physician's dream and indicated she would use that bully pulpit to call for reform.

REGINA BENJAMIN: 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.

ELLIOTT: A national voice for rural health care, Benjamin became the youngest and first African-American woman elected to the board of the American Medical Association and was also the first black woman to head a state medical society.

Alabama Health Officer Don Williamson says Regina Benjamin brings an important perspective to the health care debate.

DON WILLIAMSON: The realization that it's not going to be enough simply to give people insurance cards, that we have to have providers to deliver those services, and that in much of rural America there simply aren't enough providers.

ELLIOTT: In 1995, Dr. Benjamin told NPR about the rewards of rural medicine.

BENJAMIN: I feel like I'm making a difference and the people I see appreciate my being here. You know, I really get involved with their lives on a day-to-day basis. And that makes it worthwhile. And that's what I went to medical school for.

ELLIOTT: Benjamin says if she's confirmed as surgeon general, her hope is to be America's family physician.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.