Jan. 11, 2010— -- U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin said for the first time today that like millions of Americans, she battles the scale and wants to "work together" to fight the U.S. obesity epidemic.
"I'm just like 67 percent of Americans. I struggle with my weight just like they do," Benjamin said in an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts today. "So I understand. And I want to have them help me, and I'll help them, and we'll work together to try to become a healthier nation."
Critics blasted Benjamin about her weight following her appointment in July, saying a "noticeably overweight" surgeon general, as the public face of America's health initiatives, sends the wrong message.
"I'm a woman. Just like everyone else, I want to be attractive. You don't want to see those negative things -- people calling you names. So it was very hurtful," Benjamin said.
Benjamin, who hopes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this year, emphasized the role of the individual in staying well.
"You're the person who needs to make your decisions about whether or not you're going to do something to harm yourself," she said. "You have to make that decision yourself."
The interview aired just hours before Benjamin was scheduled to attend her official Change of Command ceremony, where she will take on the responsibilities of, as she called it last summer, "America's doctor."
"I have to make America my patient," Benjamin told "Good Morning America." "The 300 million Americans are now my patients. And I hope to treat them, and I hope I can deal with the trust that a doctor has with their patients. I want to do that with the American people."
As the health care bill debate rages in the Senate, Benjamin said she wanted to see a plan that would give coverage to the uninsured and stabilize coverage for those who already have it, citing a life of caring for those in both camps.
"What's right is that we give coverage to people, insurance coverage to people who hadn't had insurance coverage -- almost 31 million people," she said. "And those people who do have coverage, they can have the security of understanding that their insurance will be there when they need it. They won't be dropped like a pin when they need it.
"I've seen what happens when you don't have good coverage. That's the people I treat. I couldn't treat everybody," she said.
Whatever comes of the health care bill, Benjamin said her job would be to communicate clearly with the people about an often complicated and confusing industry.
"I want to be articulate, speak clearly to the American people," she said. "In all of this confusing health care information that's out there ... I'd like to be the person who helps them get through it and understand it and add some clarity."
From Rural Roots to Nation's Top Doc
Formerly the CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama, Benjamin made headlines for helping to rebuild the clinic after Hurricane Katrina blew through in 2005. The clinic serves 4,400 patients who would be "hard pressed" to find help elsewhere, The Associated Press reported.
Benjamin said she knows from experience that being paid in oysters and apple pie may feed the stomach, but it doesn't pay clinic workers or help buy medical supplies.
"I grew up in a small town. ... I grew up learning that service was important, that there was always someone that you can help" Benjamin said.
But beyond service, Benjamin said that in her early years, she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life.
"When I did my SATs, it said 'What do you want to be?' And I had no idea, so I checked of 'International Lawyer.' I didn't know what that was, but I thought it sounded good," she said.
Before entering college, Benjamin applied to Yale Law School but the school suggested she get an undergraduate degree first.
Benjamin went to Xavier University of Louisiana, where she saw a black doctor for the first time, and she enrolled in a summer program to generate interest in health careers among students. From that point on, she was hooked on science and service.
Benjamin was the first African-American woman to head a state medical society, and she received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2007.
"Medicine is probably the best profession, in my mind, that anyone could have," Benjamin said. "Oftentimes our hands are the first hands that touch a baby when they're born, and the last hands that touch an elderly person before they die. There's nothing like that. So to me, that's special."