Video: Obama picks surgeon general

updated 7/13/2009 12:50:22 PM ET 2009-07-13T16:50:22

President Barack Obama nominated for surgeon general a rural family physician who has faced hurricanes, flood and fire to care for impoverished patients along Alabama's Gulf Coast.

Obama says Dr. Regina Benjamin understands the needs of the poor and uninsured, making her uniquely qualified to be America's doctor as his administration tries to revamp the health care system.

For her part, Benjamin on Monday ticked off preventable diseases that have claimed nearly all her relatives — diabetes, high blood pressure, lung cancer.

She pledged to fight so that, in her words, "no one falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system."

The surgeon general is the people's health advocate, a bully pulpit position that can be tremendously effective with a forceful personality.

Benjamin has that reputation.

A decade ago, the New York Times called her "angel in a white coat," a country doctor who made house calls along the impoverished Gulf Coast, paid whatever her patients could scrounge.

From those early days she has emerged as a national leader in the call to improve health disparities, pushed by the need in her own fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., and its diverse patient mix — where immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos make up a growing part of the population.

Her nonprofit clinic was rebuilt by volunteers after being destroyed by Katrina, only to burn down months later. Benjamin later told of her patients' desperation that she rebuild again, recalling one woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to help.

"If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest," Benjamin said last fall as she received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," money she dedicated to finishing that job.

Benjamin became the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to the American Medical Association's board. She also received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the distinguished service medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

Her nomination for surgeon general requires Senate confirmation.

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