Does the name Regina Benjamin ring any bells? She’s the nation’s top doc who flys under the radar in the way that previous U.S. surgeon generals have not. (C. Everett Koop and Joycelyn Elders come immediately to mind).
I had the opportunity to see the good doctor in action today at a photo op at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, where she was greeted by Alice Waters, a gaggle of excited kids, and the garden’s resident chickens.
What impressed me about Vice Admiral Benjamin was how much she wanted to interact with the kids, taking time to talk with them in the garden’s hay bale ramada and in the kitchen, where she was interviewed by two junior journalists for the student newspaper.
As the country’s chief health educator, Dr. Benjamin has made preventing obesity, an epidemic in America, a cornerstone of her vision for a healthier nation. She brings to the job professional and personal experience. She founded a health clinic in Bayou La Batre, a rural Alabama shrimping community, ministering to the health needs of the poor. Talk about a commitment to community service and public health: Her clinic was wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005. Undeterred, the center was rebuilt in short order.
The day before the newly rebuilt clinic was about to open in 2006, it was burned down in a fire. Dr. Benjamin rebuilt again, each time mortgaging her home and picking up shifts in emergency rooms and nursing homes to earn extra money to keep the clinic running, according to a recent Los Angeles Times profile.
She lost her only sibling to AIDS. Her mother died of lung cancer and her father from complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. All preventable diseases, notes the MacArthur award winner. She garnered some criticism during the nomination process for her current job because of her weight. She told the New York Times Magazine: “My thought is that people should be healthy and be fit at whatever size they are.”
Dr. Benjamin spoke at UC Berkeley before being shepherded to the Edible Schoolyard by Dr. Pamela Peeke, the chief medical correspondent for Discovery Health TV. She was welcomed by the mayor, school officials, and food advocate Joy Moore who quipped, “They invited me so you’d feel comfortable,” a reference to the fact that she was the only other brown-skinned adult in the assembled crowd.
The M.D. told King Middle School 8th graders Emily Wert and Maya Wong that she was excited to come to Edible to see the school’s acclaimed cooking and gardening program in action because creating healthy school environments is a key point outlined in her plan for a healthy nation.
That’s the kind of doctor’s orders on which we can all agree.
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