Benjamin, Regina 1956–

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Regina Benjamin 1956


Established Practice in Shrimping Village

Converted Practice into Rural Health Clinic

Saluted for Humanitarian Contributions


Dr. Regina Benjamin is a woman of strong social conscience. Having escaped the poverty in which she was raised by becoming a physician, Benjamin chose to return to the poor rural South of her childhood where doctors are in short supply. She eschewed the lucrative private practice she might have had in a big city in order to serve an underprivileged community with a compassion that has won her nationwide acclaim.

Regina Benjamin was born in 1956 in Mobile, AL and raised in nearby Daphne. Though her family owned land, financial straits forced them to sell it, and Benjamin remembers making frequent trip to the Gulf of Mexico to catch crabs, fish, mullet, and shrimp for dinner. Reared by a divorced mother who worked as a waitress, she claims that she never even realized that she was poor, because, as she explained to Ebony, we could live off the land and I had family and I had all of the things I needed.

When it was time for her to think about college, Benjamin first applied to Yale University School of Law. They sent me a reply politely telling me that I needed my undergraduate degree first. Undaunted, Benjamin enrolled in Xavier University in New Orleans after receiving a scholarship. There she saw her first black doctor and realized that she, too, could be a physician. Her interest prompted her to join the pre-med club at Xavier which allowed her to see physicians at work. Mesmerized by the physicians impact on their patients lives, Benjamin completed the pre-med program at Xavier and then attended medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, from which she graduated in 1982. While at Morehouse, she developed an interest in community health, where she believed she would have a longer-term impact on her patients.

Established Practice in Shrimping Village

To help pay for her schooling, Benjamin enlisted with the National Health Service Corps, which reimburses tuition in exchange for a three-year commitment to work where there is a dire need for doctors. Therefore, after her residency, Benjamin went to Bayou La Batre, AL, a small shrimping village along the Alabama Gulf Coast not far from where she was raised. She would be the only doctor serving a population of 2,500, of which more than two-thirds lived below the poverty line and a large percentage spoke no English. Despite the odds, Benjamin knew that she would thrive in Bayou La Batre. Throughout my life, she told Ebony, nothing has ever been planned. I am a firm believer that you bloom wherever youre planted.

When Benjamins three-year service was finished, she decided to remain in Bayou La Batre. In 1990 she

At a Glance

Born Regina Benjamin, 1956, Mobile, AL. Education: Attended Xavier University, New Orleans, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, graduated 1982; MBA, Tulane University, 1991. Religion: Catholic.

Career: Physician; clinical professor, preceptor for rural medicine/family medicine clerkships, University of Alabama Birmingham and University of South Alabama medical schools.

Memberships: Board of trustees, American Medical Association, 1995-98; board of censors, Medical Association of the State of Alabama; member, Alabama Board of Medical Examiners; member, State Committee of Public Health of Alabama; vice chair, Governors Commission on Aging; fellow, American College of Family Physicians; Kellogg National Fel low; member, Board of Trustees, Mobile County Medical Society; board of trustees, Mobile Area Red Cross; board of trustees, ! Mercy Medical; board of trustees, Mobile Chamber of Commerce; board of trustees, Mobile 200 (education reform); board of trustees, United Way of Mobile; board of trustees, Eastern Mercy Health System; vice president, Deep South Girl Scout Council.

Awards: Woman of the Year, CBS This Morning, 1996; Person of the Week, ABCs World News Tonight with Peter Jennings; Woman of Achievement award, Mobile Press Register; American Medical Associations Unsung Hero Campaign advertisement, 1990; one of the Nations Fifty Future Leaders Age Forty and Under, Time Magazine.

Addresses: 13823 Shell Belt Road, Bayou la Batre, AL 36509.

opened her private practice there rather than in a larger city offering greater financial rewards. She explains that she chose to work in Bayou La Batre because there is a need, and because it is a place where one doctors presence can make a difference.

Most of Bayou La Batres residents earn their livelihood from the Gulf, and many of their illnesses come from the Gulf, too. Thus, Benjamin spends her days removing shrimp thorns from fingers, caring for weakened hearts, and helping to mend broken bones. And when she is finished with her own patients, she makes rounds at three hospitals, two in Mobile and one in Fairhope.

To be a rural doctor is in essence to be a social service worker as well. Wearing her trademark Air Nike tennis shoes, Benjamin spends hours with her patients, often driving her Ford pickup truck all over town to visit their homes. The office also runs a taxi service, picking up and driving home patients who have no other means of transportation. When they cannot compensate her for her serviceswhich is oftenshe lets them pay when and what they can. She is even known for assisting her patients in battling with the insurance companies. As Rick Bragg of the New York Times described her, she is a soft-spoken woman, quick to smile, slow to brag, too good to be true it seems.

Given the economic wherewithal of her patient base and her willingness to see patients even if they cannot afford to pay for the visit, Benjamin at first often struggled just to pay the rent for the modest store-front office she shares with Tuang Video & Gifts, an admiralty law office, and a Vietnamese pool hall. Thus, she resorted to moonlighting in hospital emergency rooms as far away as Mississippi to survive. Here, she told Ebony she learned the importance of life and of taking the time to pay attention to little things.

Converted Practice into Rural Health Clinic

It soon became clear to Benjamin that she needed to know as much about business and government bureaucracy as she did about Gulf-borne illnesses if she was to keep her business afloat, and so she enrolled at Tulane Universitys business school. Twice a week, she made the 250-mile round trip commute to New Orleans to complete the work for her masters degree in business administration. While in school, Benjamin discovered a little-known provision in a 1977 health clinic law that made federal money available to help pay for the operation of a clinic or office in places like Bayou La Batre, where medical help is badly needed. Once classified as a rural health clinic, Benjamins practice would receive a lump sum for each Medicare or Medicaid patient she treated rather than having to bill separately for office visits, X-rays, and other services.

Benjamin converted her private practice into a rural health clinic so that she could continue to practice medicine in the environment she enjoyed. Benjamin, a registered nurse, insurance clerk, part-time receptionist, licensed practical nurse, and medical students doing a rural rotation for school served approximately 3,600 patients as of 1996, a patient base 60 percent white, 20 percent black, and the rest Southeast Asian immigrants. To be a good physician, said David Satcher, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and now U.S. surgeon general, one must know the community. Regina has gone further than most in reaching out. She has a sensitivity to the culture.

Benjamin may be the perfect prescription for the ills of the American health care system, but she is also particularly frustrated with it. What I hate, she explained to Bragg, is writing a prescription for someone who cant get it filled because they dont have any money. People cant buy medicine, they cant buy anything. To Benjamin, then, Bayou La Batre is both a home and a cause.

Saluted for Humanitarian Contributions

Not surprisingly, Benjamin has won many national accolades for her work, and she is often consulted on opening health facilities in underserved areas. For instance, she conducted a rural-health clinic conference that was broadcast nationwide via satellite so people could ask her questions related to improving the economic viability of rural clinics. She also regularly presents the concerns of her patients to the national medical community. I want to make a difference for my patients and speak for them, she told Jet. Towards this end, she has assumed leadership positions with the American Medical Association (AMA). Moreover, in 1995 she became the first black woman, only the second black, and the first physician under the age of 40 to be elected to the AMAs board of trustees, a position she held until 1998. She has further been heralded as an Angel in a White Coat by the New York Times, Person of the Week on ABCs World News Tonight, Woman of the Year by CBS This Morning, and one of the Nations Fifty Future Leaders Age Forty and Under by Time Magazine. But it is her patients who bestow upon her the greatest praise.

Southwest Airlines Magazine described Benjamin as an incongruous mix of contrasting images: medical professionalism and Southern charm; white lab jacket, pearls, and Nike Air Max sneakers; though quiet and reserved, shes been known to sky-dive and drive Porsches. But despite this dichotomy of images, Benjamins commitment to her patients has been nothing short of steadfast. Her patients only somewhat jokingly refer to her as the future surgeon general, and she continues to receive offers from large facilities in populous areas, offering significant financial compensation. And even though her office was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Georges in September of 1998, her interests and her heart still remain in Bayou La Batre. When asked by Southwest Airlines Magazine to explain this passion, she replied that she loved everything. Just everything [The people] are genuine. Theyre family.Its nice to come home where things are real. Its comforting. Its like the salmon. You go back to where you started.



Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution, March 24, 1996.

Ebony, March 1997, pp. 8687; January 1998, pp. 5257.

Jet, July 10, 1995, pp. 3840.

New York Times, April 3, 1995, p. A12.

Southwest Airlines Magazine, December 1996, pp. 4044, 105106.


Press Releases, American Medical Association.

Lisa S. Weitzman

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Benjamin, Regina 1956–

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