President Obama’s pick for Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, a general practitioner who has devoted her career to providing health care to the rural poor in Alabama, brings more than just her medical chops to the table. A graduate of Xavier and Tulane universities in New Orleans, she knows the problems Louisiana faces in health care, but more than anything else, it is her Katrina story that speaks for our collective experience.
Benjamin’s health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., the Gulf coast shrimping community that was the fictional home of “Bubba” Blue, Forrest Gump’s comrade-in-arms in Vietnam and partner in Bubba Gump Shrimp, was destroyed first by Hurricane George in 1998, before being flooded for a second time by Katrina in 2005, and then burning down the night before the restored clinic was set to reopen. Benjamin knows all about living in shelters and FEMA trailers, losing medical records, finding ways to afford medication when her patients and her town are destitute, and rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding.
Today’s New York Times has republished a letter-to-the-editor she wrote on August 27, 2006, a year after Katrina had devastated Bayou La Batre. We know this story inside out, it’s the story of Katrina and Rita, it’s our story as well as hers.
Benjamin is eminently qualified to speak as the nation’s first doctor. But it is her particular knowledge of what a community goes through during a disaster, and how much courage it takes to rebuild a life, a community, a city, a state, that has transformed her into a physician of more than the body. Like all great doctors, she is a healer of the spirit, she knows what it takes to really make a person whole again.