Alabama doctor and free clinic founder confirmed as U.S. Surgeon General

The Senate has confirmed Alabama doctor Regina Benjamin as U.S. Surgeon General. Benjamin is known for founding the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama and for keeping the clinic running during two hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate has confirmed Alabama doctor Regina Benjamin as U.S. Surgeon General.

The confirmation came by voice vote Thursday afternoon amid a national emergency over the swine flu outbreak, according to the New York Times. Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chided Republicans for holding up Dr. Benjamin’s nomination, which President Obama made in July, because of an unrelated matter, the Times said.

Benjamin is known for founding the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama and for keeping the clinic running during two hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina.

At an Oct. 15 town hall meeting in New Orleans, President Obama said the region’s resilience “begins with the doctors and nurses who stayed behind to care for the sick and the injured without equipment, without electricity — like our nation’s surgeon general, Dr. Regina Benjamin – who mortgaged her house, maxed out on her credit cards so she could reopen her clinic and help care for victims of the storm,”  according to the White House blog.

Benjamin is a family physician in Bayou La Batre, an Alabama Gulf Coast shrimping town, according to MedPage Today. The founder of the rural health clinic there also is former associate dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in Mobile.

In 2002, she became president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, making her the first African-American woman to be president of a state medical society in the United States, according to a statement by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“Dr. Benjamin will quickly become America’s doctor as our next surgeon general,” Sebelius said in the statement. “Her deep knowledge and strong medical skills, her commitment to her patients and her ability to inspire the people she interacts with every day will serve her well as surgeon general.”

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Benjamin “will be an integral part of our H1N1 response effort,” Sebelius said, “and America can expect to see her very soon communicating important information about how to stay healthy and safe this flu season. I commend the Senate for their unanimous vote and I look forward to working with Dr. Benjamin in the days ahead.”

“It’s kind of just sinking in,” Benjamin told the Mobile Press-Register newspaper. The Senate’s decision gives her a four-year term as the nation’s chief health educator, the Press-Register said.

Benjamin holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Xavier University in New Orleans. She was in the second class at Morehouse School of Medicine and received her MD degree from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, as well as an MBA from Tulane University. She completed her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia.

Benjamin received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998 and was elected to the American Medical Association board of trustees in 1995, making her the first physician under the age of 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected. She received the 2000 National Caring Award, which was inspired by Mother Teresa, as well as the papal honor Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope Benedict XVI. She is also a recent recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.

[Photo credit: White House photo by Lawrence Jackson]