President Obama will name Dr. Regina Benjamin as U.S. Surgeon General in a Rose Garden announcement late this morning.
Benjamin, an Alabama family physician, runs a rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre. She was the first African-American woman to head a state medical society and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last year.
She became known nationally for her determination to rebuild her clinic, destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In her profile on the National Institutes of Health web site, Benjamin writes about her calling to become a doctor while in medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I believe it was divine intervention – it was in medical school when I realized there was nothing else I'd rather do with my life than to be a doctor. I had never seen a black doctor before I went to college, so I did not have an idea that I wanted to be one. I never thought I that I couldn't, but I never really thought about it at all.”
According to a 1997 article in Ebony, Benjamin said she applied to Yale University School of Law before she attended college. “They sent me a reply politely telling me that I needed my undergraduate degree first."
To pay for college, she turned to the National Health Service Corps, which gave her a tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to work in areas where there was a shortage of doctors.
That agreement took her to Bayou La Batre where she was the only doctor for 2,500 people, most of whom lived below the poverty line and spoke no English.
Benjamin was named the Person of the Week on ABC News’ World News Tonight in 1995 and conveyed the challenges of servicing poor patients.
“The people are real, genuine, hardworking. They're proud people. They make a living the best they can on shrimp boats. They, unfortunately, are too poor to pay their medical bills at times,” she told ABC News’ Peter Jennings. “Sometimes it's very frustrating. Sometimes I can do everything that the textbooks taught me and school taught me and then patients can't buy their medicine. And it's all for nothing."
In January, it was reported that President Obama had asked CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta to be Surgeon General, and that Gupta had mulled the offer for a while, but eventually turned it down.
Benjamin will appear in the Rose Garden today as the president makes the nomination formal.
– Jake Tapper, Sunlen Miller and Karen Travers