Surgeon general nominee brings tragedy to the job

President Obama’s nominee to be surgeon general on Monday laid out a sad family history that she and Obama said makes her firmly qualified to be “America’s family physician.”

Regina Benjamin, speaking in a shaky voice at the Rose Garden ceremony where Obama announced her nomination, told reporters of several premature deaths in her immediate family.

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Benjamin’s father died of complications from diabetes and hypertension, while her brother died from HIV-related complications. Her mother died of lung cancer from smoking.

To be surgeon general “is a physician’s dream,” said Benjamin, who was flanked by Obama and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “But for me, it’s more than just a job.

“My family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases,” Benjamin said. “While I cannot change my family’s past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s healthcare and our nation’s health for the future.”

Benjamin’s nomination comes more than six months after Obama took office and more than four months since neuroscientist and CNN commentator Dr. Sanjay Gupta withdrew his name from consideration.

The administration then had to deal with a potential pandemic from the H1N1 “swine flu” virus without a surgeon general. It also had trouble filling Sebelius’s position at HHS.

Obama is now focused on healthcare reform, the signature effort of his administration, though it was unclear what role Benjamin might play in that legislative battle.

Obama lauded Benjamin’s career on Monday, specifically her work building, running and — following several catastrophes — rebuilding a healthcare center in Bayou La Batre, an Alabama fishing village of 2,500.

Obama noted that Benjamin’s clinic was destroyed by hurricanes George and Katrina and gutted by a fire.

“Through floods and fires and severe want, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up. Her patients have refused to give up,” Obama said. “And when we were talking in the Oval Office, she said, ‘The one thing I want to do is make sure that this Surgeon General’s Office gives voice to patients, that patients have a seat at the table; somebody is advocating for them and speaking for them.’ ”

Obama, who used the occasion of Benjamin’s nomination to go back on offense in passing healthcare reform, said his nominee “has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our healthcare system.”

Benjamin, thanking Obama for his efforts on reform, said “it should not be this hard for doctors and other healthcare providers to care for their patients.”

“It shouldn’t be this expensive for Americans to get healthcare in this country,” Benjamin said.

“My hope, if confirmed as surgeon general, is to be America’s doctor, America’s family physician. As we work toward a solution to this healthcare crisis, I promise to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with healthcare reform.”

Benjamin was second in her class at the Morehouse School of Medicine and received her M.D. from the University of Alabama and an M.B.A. from Tulane University in New Orleans.