Regina grew up in the tiny town of Daphne, Alabama. Her parents divorced after hard times forced them to sell the family land, and Regina and her brother were raised by their mother, who worked as a maid and waitress. Out of necessity, the family made frequent trips to the Gulf of Mexico to catch crabs, fish, and shrimp for food. Regina never even knew she was poor.
As a child, Regina had never thought about being a doctor. In high school, she heard the term "international lawyer," and liked the way it sounded. She applied to Yale Law School, who politely told her that she had to go to college before law school was possible. Regina enrolled at college in New Orleans, and it was there that she met the first African American physician she’d ever encountered. She had literally never seen a black doctor before, and the encounter opened up her mind to new possibilities.
She decided to pursue a career in medicine. After earning a Bachelor’s of Science degree, Regina began preparations to attend medical school. To help pay for her schooling, she signed up with the National Health Service Corps, which pays tuition in return for three years’ work in a place that’s direly in need of doctors.
To fulfill her commitment, Regina found her way to Bayou La Batre, a shrimp-fishing town of just 2,500 people near Alabama’s Gulf Coast. She established a small health clinic there, and became the only doctor serving its poor community, where 80% of the population lived below the poverty line. Many of her patients were unable to pay, so Regina would often treat them for free, or simply asked them to pay what they could when they could. Sometimes, she even accepted pints of locally-harvested oysters as payment!
The little that her patients were able to pay wasn’t enough to cover the costs of nurses, an office manager, or even the overhead of the tiny clinic. Regina supported some of the financial burden herself by working late-night shifts at emergency rooms around the region, but soon realized that, with the right business knowledge, she might be able to raise money for her clinic. She began commuting 250 miles twice a week to New Orleans to earn a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. While in school, she discovered a little-known government health law which provides federal money to clinics operating in places where medical help is badly needed. Regina had found her answer.
During her time getting the clinic on its feet, Regina’s brother died from AIDS-related complications, and their mother died the following year from lung cancer. Her father also died from a combination of diabetes and high blood pressure. With these personal losses driving her, Regina became determined to fight preventable diseases and illness, along with her continued dedication to offer health care and medical attention to populations who couldn’t easily get it.
Over the years, Regina became a recognized leader in her field, receiving calls, letters and visits from others around the country who wanted to do what she had done in their own backwoods towns. She spoke at seminars and was invited to serve on several state and national medical association panels. And despite her clinic being destroyed by hurricanes twice in eight years, she declined numerous offers to join big-city practices and hospitals. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves to rebuild each time, and continued to serve her patients by making house calls in her pickup truck.
Dr. Regina Benjamin was the first physician under age forty to be elected to the American Medical Association (AMA) Board of Trustees. She was the sole American recipient of the 1998 Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, and in 2002, she became the first African American female president of a state medical society. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Regina Benjamin the 18th Surgeon General of the United States.
Giving, caring, and sacrificing for the sake of her patients shows how Regina epitomizes the Live to Give Mindset. In addition to making house calls for those who wouldn't or couldn't visit a clinic on their own, Benjamin's nurses often saw her paying for medicine out of her own pocket for patients who couldn't afford it. On paper, her own clinic even owes her hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay, as she has long worked there without receiving paychecks. As you go about your day, think about Regina Benjamin, and remember that nothing in life can provide greater rewards than the simple act of giving of yourself!
Until next week...
Live Your Dreams!