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MACARTHUR-BENJAMIN Sep-25-2008 (690 words) With photo. xxxn

Alabama doctor who is CHA board member gets $500,000 MacArthur grant

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When members of the board of trustees of the Catholic Health Association have a question that can best be answered by someone with hands-on, everyday experience as a health care provider, they often look to Dr. Regina Benjamin.

Benjamin, founder and CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., began a three-year term on the CHA board in 2006. She also is part of an elite group of 25 people from all walks of life named Sept. 23 as MacArthur fellows for 2008.

The fellowships, also called the MacArthur "genius awards," each include a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over five years. The recipients are selected by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future.

The clinic Benjamin created in 1990 in an Alabama shrimping community was devastated twice by hurricanes -- Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005 -- and by a fire on New Year's Day in 2006. But each time she has rebuilt to serve a rural population that is mostly uninsured and includes a large immigrant population of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

Benjamin, 51, said she would use her grant money in part to complete construction of the 8,000-square-foot clinic built after the fire. But she also wants to use part of the funds to help interest middle-school and elementary-school students in math, science and medical careers.

"I want to do something important, something that will make a difference," she said in a statement. "Maybe a small scholarship for young kids to encourage them to go into health careers, particularly minority kids and kids in rural communities, for them to take science and math and become doctors."

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO, said Benjamin has been a valuable addition to the organization's board.

"It's always good to have a clinical person at the table," she told Catholic News Service Sept. 24, adding that Benjamin "deals every day with the struggles people have," particularly the struggles faced by those without health insurance.

She also praised the Alabama physician for her "marvelous compassion, her sense of humor and her camaraderie," adding, "She's a wonderful board member."

Sister Carol said she had called Benjamin to congratulate her and tell her that "we knew she was a genius long before MacArthur did."

In a talk to CHA's 2005 assembly in San Diego, Benjamin said her own experiences had taught her that "one person can make a difference in medical policy and medical practices."

She also said she sometimes found her work complicated by "problems that my prescription pad could not solve."

To help patients who could not read their prescription labels, the clinic got involved in adult literacy programs. For those people affected by the pollution caused by boats that emptied their oil into the water, she convinced the state to place barrels near the shoreline, where shrimpers could put their oil.

Benjamin called on each of the health care leaders to take the time to encourage one or more young people to believe that they can be doctors, hospital CEOs or whatever they want to be.

"Find that person in whose life you can make a difference, and this conference would have been well worth it," she said.

Benjamin was the first African-American woman and the first person under 40 to be elected to the board of trustees of the American Medical Association. She received her medical degree from the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham and also holds a master's degree in business administration from Tulane University in New Orleans.

She once was named ABC News' "person of the week," and in that segment then-anchorman Peter Jennings said of her, "They just don't make doctors like that anymore."

The Alabama physician said she disagreed with Jennings on that point.

"I think there are plenty of doctors like that," she said. "You know who they are. We just have to tell their stories."


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