Benjamin, the 18th surgeon general of the United States, has deep roots in the bayou. The village at the end of U.S. Highway 1 dates to 1786, near the time Benjamin’s forebears were planted in the marshland area. In a town historically devoted to shrimping – but mostly, to each other – the bayou’s most famous descendent has invested her life in helping the medically underserved.
Benjamin’s medical career has earned fame and taken her to Washington, D.C., London and beyond. But she always returns to the bayou. After serving 30 years in rural family practice medicine, Benjamin in October 2019 opened Bayou la Batre’s new Gulf States Health Policy Center, a health and resource center for less privileged residents that focuses on the social determinants of health.
Rural health is Benjamin’s ‘passion’
Bayou La Batre doesn’t have many public spaces for people to come together for conversations about rural health.
“Opening this center was my dream for a long time,” said Benjamin, the 2009-2013 U.S. surgeon general under President Barack Obama.
As surgeon general, Benjamin’s focus was on improving health disparities, prevention, rural health and children’s health. She advocates for walking and exercising: Benjamin plans to build walking trails at the Gulf States Health Policy Center, allowing residents to exercise safely. Benjamin wants to see her longtime patients and neighbors improve their health, and this often begins with conversation.
“We’ve got a big community room so that people have places to meet, have events so they can come in and have this conversation on rural health, and they can ask questions,” she said. “One of the signature places is our kitchen, because we like to teach people how to cook healthy, prepare their foods and how to read labels.”
Bayou residents receive free, basic diagnostic services such as blood pressure and blood sugar checks. The center’s computer room has free internet and several workstations for students and families. Other conference rooms are suitable for small group meetings and activities.
The purpose of Benjamin’s free clinic and resource center is to prevent health problems. She’s spent her life treating residents whose chronic diseases – diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease – often are caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices.
“Prevention is what I’ve always been about,” said Benjamin, who earned her medical degree at the University of Alabama in 1984. “I’ve always been interested in the community’s health. Prior to being surgeon general, I’ve been in Bayou La Batre as a primary care physician and a family physician.”
It was her love of people that led to Benjamin’s successful medical career. As an outgoing person – she attributes her gregarious personality to her mother – Benjamin said that “divine intervention” was behind her decision to study medicine at Xavier University of New Orleans.
“The only reason I went into pre-med at Xavier University was the social aspect,” Benjamin said. “They had the best club, and I wanted to meet people. It really was divine intervention, because in medical school I realized there was nothing I’d rather do with my life than be a doctor.” Nearly 40 years later, Benjamin is the Endowed Chair of Public Health Sciences at her alma mater.
She emphasizes the importance of prevention in community health.
“Through the years, I loved treating patients one on one,” said Benjamin, founder of the Gulf States Health Policy Center, which aims to reduce health disparities and improve health outcomes among people in the Gulf region. “I’ve always loved that. But my time as surgeon general taught me about population health, and that we can treat more and more people with more and better policies and better programs.”
When Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed Benjamin’s Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, she mortgaged her house to make the clinic serviceable again. While rebuilding, Benjamin made house calls to patients.
Avidly interested in the causes of disease, Benjamin said that health doesn’t occur in a doctor’s office alone.
“Health occurs where we live, where we learn, where we work, where we play and where we pray,” Benjamin said. “Health is in everything that we do, everything from clean water to safe highways to healthy foods. This new clinic is about getting the community involved, interested in getting healthier and taking control of their lives. We’ve been doing this for several years, and the community is very engaged in that. What’s really exciting is that we’ve developed a relationship with more than 150 organizations.”
Benjamin has won many awards throughout her career. She received the 2000 National Caring Award, inspired by Mother Teresa. In 2008, Benjamin received a $500,000 MacArthur Genius Award Fellowship for improving medical care for the disadvantaged. Readers Digest ranked her No. 22 of the “100 Most Trusted People in America” in 2013.