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Town in 'Forrest Gump' Thinks Regina Benjamin, MD, Will Bring Home Change

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, July 15, 2009

A look at Alabama and its small shrimp processing town, Bayou La Batre, made famous by the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump," might reveal some clues about what health issues President Obama's pick for the next U.S. Surgeon General will tackle first.

Regina Benjamin, MD, started her own practice on the south side of town nearly two decades ago, an office that is now Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic.

Now, many in the small shrimp town are beaming with pride that one of their own has been named to be the top physician in the U.S.

"This is the biggest thing since Bubba Gump that a person from Bajou La Batre had a moment of fame," says Jim Vann, a pharmacist who has known her for nearly two decades.

She wanted to care for a population of poor, uninsured, and often very sick people that are the end result of all that is wrong with the U.S. healthcare system, which allows diseases that could be prevented to flourish.

For Benjamin, it will probably be back to the basics of educating and encouraging Americans not to smoke, to manage their weight and their diet, and to avoid heart disease and high blood pressure, conditions that plague her community and her state, some of her acquaintances and co-workers said.

She and her small staff of fewer than 12 see about 16 patients a day, five days a week. And most of these patients have challenging health problems.

"This is a community of largely self-employed people, fishermen, who are independent minded people," says Vann.

"And there are an awful lot of them who don't have insurance because they can't afford it. I know many times people tell me they didn't go to the doctor, or they don't get this medicine they need, or won't get this test or procedure done" because they can't pay.

Benjamin, he says, "knows this. She's lived it. She touches it every day." And making sure that everyone has an option for health coverage is of paramount importance to her, he says.

Twice her clinic has been torn apart by hurricanes (Georges and Katrina) and once totally burned down by fire. Still, she has managed to overcome, find the money, restore patients' charts, and rebuild.

Many of the people in this town have neglected their care for many years. A large portion are obese, and have diabetes and hypertension, mirroring health conditions in the rest of Alabama.

They also smoke cigarettes, and eat a cultural–not necessarily a healthy–diet. And many are now unemployed, because businesses ruined by Hurricane Katrina and flooding in 2005 were torn down. The companies moved away, leaving behind their former employees, some of Benjamin's colleagues and co-workers said.

For many now living in Bayou La Batre, many illnesses would have been avoided if care had been easier to find years ago.

But now, the challenge is to manage patients' diseases and conditions the best that her clinic's budget and small staff can.

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