Alabama’s Own Regina Benjamin, Advocate For Nick’s Crusade, Named Surgeon General Of US

Congratulations, Regina Benjamin!!

I couldn’t think of a better candidate for Surgeon General than Dr. Benjamin, and I was surprised and pleased that someone from my old hometown that I am familiar with hit the big-time!

President Obama announces Regina Benjamin as his nominee for Surgeon General
President Obama announces Regina Benjamin as his nominee for Surgeon General

Dr. Benjamin works in a clinic in Bayou La Batre just south of Mobile, Alabama (where I’m from). As far as I know, she’s the first Surgeon General to come directly from the trenches caring for the poor, not a hot-shot surgeon who never sees the outside of a hospital, a public health administrator, or a leading health care CEO well-known among country club political donors. ALL Surgeons General should be from the hands-on world, with experience with the hard realities of getting appropriate health care for America’s poor majority.

No one knows these tough realities better than Regina Benjamin, who is one of the only doctors in the small shrimping town of Bayou la Batre along the Gulf of Mexico, where old French Catholic and old Anglo Catholic families have fished and shrimped for centuries, and South Vietnamese (Catholic) shrimpers fled as war refugees after the Vietnam war ended. Bayou la Batre attracted many Vietnamese families because it’s one of the only rural shoreside shrimping villages in America similar to theirs back home, where they can live in a similar environment and work with fishing nets in the ways their families have for millennia, no need to re-train for a new job. The Vietnamese shrimpers and fishermen have increasingly edged the old shrimping families out of the business with their willingness to live on their boats all season, and a seemingly infinite capacity for thrift, bartering fish for gasoline to run their boats and other clever ways of lowering costs. I once knew an ex-army medic and LPN who’s a direct descendant of Joesph Bosarge, the French-born guy who founded Bayou la Batre with a land grant from Spain in 1786, and he told me a lot about the area. I’ve visited Bayou la Batre a few times. I’ve also talked to several Vietnamese kids about it (some of them I went to high school with; despite being poor they were always #1 in the year-end academic rankings, way ahead of me, though I was high up there). My point is, I know exactly where Regina Benjamin is coming from, and it ain’t the same board rooms and government offices where they found most of the previous Surgeons General. She runs a free clinic, and treats poor whites, poor blacks and poor Asians (often by having one of the English-speaking schoolkids translateinterpret her medical instructions into Vietnamese). Like an early 20th century country doctor, Dr. Benjamin does house calls, and accepts whatever patients can pay, even if they can’t, or even if all they can do is barter her part of their catch. This is a doctor who has risen to the top not through the usual cutthroat tactics, not through being the best at what everyone else is doing, but by charting a different path, advocating for and caring for the most needy, showing us what the focus of the medical world should be, public service.

I first became familiar with Regina Benjamin when I was fighting my famous two-year campaign to get Alabama Medicaid to stop stripping home care coverage for people like me just because we turn 21 (full story here). Local WPMI TV news interviewed her about my fight (as she then was director-designate of the Alabama State Medical Association) and she made supportive comments and said of course Alabama Medicaid should cover those who really need it, and that they’re obviously overlooking some gaps.

Regina Benjamin advocating for Nick's Crusade, August 2001
Regina Benjamin advocating for Nick's Crusade, August 2001

I don’t know of any other doctor who would stick her neck out for justice for kids she’s never met. Dr. Benjamin is a special person, exactly the kind of person who should be put in a powerful position to affect change. This nomination is one thing President Obama is doing RIGHT.

Bayou la Batre is one of the few remaining Catholic fishing communities that still does the annual Blessing of the Fleet in hopes of a bountiful catch that year. Dr. Benjamin is Catholic also, and likely has strong moral convictions that have led her to devote her career to the poor. Her clinic, along with all of Bayou la Batre and much of Mobile (including our backyard), was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. She rebuilt the clinic, only for it to burn to the ground the night before its grand reopening. Then she rebuilt again. Like a heroine in a Biblical fable or something, each crushing tragedy made her stronger, gained her more support and attention, only pushed her higher. She was awarded the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice by Pope Benedict XVI for exceptional service to the people of her diocese.

Incredibly, now Dr. Benjamin has the far-right fringe calling her “baby killer” because she’s never taken a hard-line against abortion (which is understandable from a doctor in an impoverished community that sees too many rapes and pregnancies endangering the mother). Even dumber, people are attacking her for her weight! These critics have probably never been to the Deep South; she is svelte by Alabama standards! And they’re also clueless about the expectations black men have for the women in their community re: size (maybe I should do a post about the differences in cultural expectations).

Anyhow, the haters need to get a grip. This nomination is going to sail through faster than a shrimp boat in a hurricane!

Regina Benjamin is probably Obama’s best nomination yet.