Sanjay, we hardly knew ye.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's celebrity neurosurgeon who was President Obama's first choice as surgeon general, cited a variety of personal reasons for turning down the post, but a Gulf Coast dynamo named Regina M. Benjamin has no such compunctions. Her nomination was announced Monday by President Obama, who lauded his choice as a physician who understands the health care needs of the nation "in a personal and powerful way."
"For nearly two decades, Dr. Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system," Obama said Monday while introducing his nominee. "She's been a relentless promoter of prevention and wellness programs, having treated too many costly diseases and complications that didn't have to happen . . . But for all that she's seen and all the tremendous obstacles she has overcome, Regina Benjamin also represents what's best about health care in America: doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients."
Presidents always tout their own appointees, but in this case he is hardly alone. The New York Times
, in a memorable 1995 piece by star writer Rick Bragg, quoted various Alabama villagers whom Dr. Benjamin had treated over the years – regardless of whether they could afford it – as comparing her to an angel, an angel in a white coat. Since that time, Benjamin's legend has only increased in Alabama's bayou country, where she is known for making house calls in her pickup truck to remote fishing villages and building rural medical clinics – and, most of all, for refusing to allow little barriers like crushing poverty or natural disasters prevent her from delivering medical care to those in need.
Benjamin, who is 52, is a graduate of Xavier University in Louisiana, and has an M.B.A. from Tulane in addition to a medical degree from the University of Alabama. In 1995, she became the first African-American physician (and the first doctor under the age of 40) named to the board of trustees of the American Medical Association.
"This is a physician's dream," Benjamin said when Obama turned the microphone over to her. "But for me it's more than just a job. Public health issues are very personal to me. My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer because as a young girl she wanted to smoke. . . My family's not here with me -- at least not in person -- because of preventable diseases. While I cannot change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's health care for the future."
News of her appointment, which needs Senate confirmation, came on a day Republican senators where struggling with the question of whether they dared oppose a Latina nominee to the Supreme Court whose political views they aren't wild about, but whose life story is simply inspirational. In the case of the new surgeon general-designee, it seems that the White House has produced a nominee senators of both parties will line up to praise lavishly.
After Hurricane Georges partially destroyed Benjamin's nonprofit clinic in Bayou La Batre in 1998, volunteers helped her repair it. Seven years later, when Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed it, she and the community it serves rebuilt it. Months later, after the new clinic was destroyed by fire, Benjamin began rebuilding yet again. Benjamin herself has described the time an impoverished woman handed her an envelope with $7 for the rebuilding effort. "If she can find $7," Benjamin said, "I can figure out the rest." She did, too, with the help of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" of $500,000, which was quickly applied to the task.
Although the Office of the Surgeon General officially oversees the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the real influence of a surgeon general is advisory – with the American public as the patient. The government's own Web site puts it this way: "The Surgeon General serves as America's chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury." That sounds straightforward, but the "best scientific information" can be controversial. The 1964 surgeon general's report on smoking launched the tobacco wars that are only now subsiding (and prolonged the lives of millions of Americans in the process).
The most tireless anti-smoking surgeon general was Reagan-appointee C. Everett Koop. Yet Koop's office, and the Reagan White House, were both criticized for being too slow off the dime in warning the nation of the deadly AIDS epidemic looming ahead. This issue indirectly claimed the reputation of another pediatrician, Joycelyn Elders. She was President Clinton's pick as surgeon general, but within two years was sent back to Arkansas with the caustic mirth of late-night television comedians ringing in her ears. Elders' sin? Making remarks about the utility of teaching masturbation in schools as one preventative against the lethal virus.
The contretemps came in 1994, when Elders spoke at a United Nations conference on HIV-AIDS. Asked if she considered it suitable to promote masturbation as one alternative to risky sex practices, she answered, "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." After already having tested the patience of White House officials with similar off-the-cuff comments on condom distribution in schools and drug legalization, Elders was forced out. "There have been too many areas where the president does not agree with her views," White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told reporters. "This is just one too many." By December of that year, she was gone. By the following December, Clinton was entangled with an unpaid intern half his age, raising the question in his former surgeon general's mind, one supposes, of whether the president should have heeded Elders' advice himself instead of firing her.
As far as Obama is concerned, the White House statement announcing Benjamin's nomination indicates that he is hoping the nation's new surgeon general will deal in more policy-oriented areas, specifically his goal of expanding health care coverage in this country to those who don't now have it. If so, he's chosen someone who has walked the walk. This is from the MacArthur Grant bio of the good doctor:
"Regina Benjamin is a rural family physician forging an inspiring model of compassionate and effective medical care in one of the most underserved regions of the United States . . . A committed local physician, she also plays key roles statewide and nationally, helping others establish clinics in remote areas of the country and serving in leadership positions in such health-related organizations as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. With a deep, firsthand knowledge of the pressing needs and health disparities afflicting rural, high-poverty communities, Benjamin is ensuring that the most vulnerable among us have access to high-quality care."