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Always on Call

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A steady stream of patients arrives daily at Dr. Regina Benjamin’s clinic, housed in a squat vinyl-sided building within sniffing distance of the fishing piers and seafood plants of tiny Bayou La Batre, Ala. Her visitors include factory workers with inflamed tendons, shrimpers with shark bites, retirees with heart trouble, diabetic mothers and their coughing toddlers. Though their medical needs differ, most of these folks have one thing in common: They can’t afford to pay Benjamin, 45, for her services. No matter. “Regina always tells me, ‘Let ’em in, Nell,’ ” says Nell Bosarge, 71, one of the clinic’s two nurses. “She never turns anyone away.”

And she has no plans to start. Since 1990, Benjamin has been the sole physician in this impoverished Gulf Coast town of 2,500 residents. She kept her first clinic financially afloat by moonlighting in emergency rooms and nursing homes. When Hurricane Georges wrecked the building in 1998, she spent the next two years treating patients out of a makeshift mobile unit—her 1988 Ford pickup—until she raised enough money for her new clinic. “You can’t just quit taking care of people who need you,” she says. “There was no one else to see them.” Benjamin may labor in an isolated southern hamlet, but she has won national awards for her work on behalf of the rural working poor. And this year she will make history as the first African-American to become president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. (She takes office in July.) No one is prouder of her than Louis W. Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush and now president of Benjamin’s alma mater, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. “Regina not only provides health care in an under served area,” he says, “but she’s a role model and a community leader.”

Her patients don’t know that Benjamin is courted by big-city medical centers and universities. (“No, thanks,” she says, “I like where I am.”) What they see is a doctor who puts in long hours for low pay and makes house calls to places that barely have passable roads. They also

know that her commitment to the community extends far beyond the clinic doors: She persuaded fishermen to stop dumping used motor oil into the bayou and got factory managers to improve conditions for assembly-line workers, many of whom suffer from the debilitating wrist ailment known as carpal tunnel syndrome. She started an adult literacy program in a town where 30 percent of residents belong to families that emigrated from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. “She helps a hell of a lot of people down her,” says wheelchair-bound William Alderman, 68, retired from the U.S. Army. “She’s as good a person as she is a doctor.”

And always on call. When Benjamin dropped by the Lighthouse Restaurant on a recent afternoon, it wasn’t only for the mullet lunch special. “How are you?” she asked waitress Kendra Sprinkle, 31. Sprinkle—who suffers from Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal ailment—gave her a detailed report. “She’s just wonderful,” she says of Benjamin. “Everybody loves her.”

Along with her capacious heart, Benjamin has a perfect poker face—a valuable asset for someone whose patients often choose home remedies over costly medications. When retired teacher Margaret Miller reports that she has taken garlic for a body-shaking cough, Benjamin responds mildly, “Garlic is to keep away vampires. I’ll get you an antibiotic.” Benjamin was horrified—though she gave no sign—when a shrimper who had been at sea for 20 days used Super Glue to close a deep gash in the palm of his hand. But after treating the wound, she complimented him on his ingenuity. “He had to do something,” she says with a shrug. “And hey, it was healing just fine, with no infection.”

While many in Bayou La Batre believe that Benjamin was heaven-sent, she actually grew up in nearby Daphne. Her role model was her mother, Millie, now deceased. After divorcing her husband, Clarence—now 79 and a retired civil servant in Mobile—Millie supported Regina and her older brother Charles, who died in 1996, by waiting tables. “I didn’t know I was poor until someone in junior high told me I was,” Benjamin recalls. “I grew up fishing and crabbing, so we always had plenty of good food.”

After graduating from Fairhope high school in 1975, Benjamin went to Xavier University in New Orleans, where she encountered her first African-American physician. “I had never seen a black doctor,” says Benjamin. Inspired, she went off to Morehouse in 1979 to become one herself. After two years there she earned her M.D. at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, then spent two years as a family-practice resident in Macon, Ga. Benjamin had signed up with the National Health Service Corps, which pays tuition for doctors who agree to go where they’re needed most, and was thrilled to be called home to Alabama in 1987. She paid off her debt to the corps by working at a clinic in Irvington for 2½ years. Soon job offers came in from across the country—but she decided to open a clinic of her own in neighboring Bayou La Batre. “This is a community where folks are too poor to afford medical care, but too rich to qualify for Medicaid,” she says. “I like the people and I can make a difference here.”

It hasn’t been easy. At first she didn’t know a thing about business. “I needed to figure out how to make this clinic work,” she says. So she spent weekends for 18 months commuting 125 miles to Tulane University in New Orleans, where in 2000 she earned a master’s degree in business administration.

Benjamin was still struggling financially when Hurricane Georges flooded the clinic and sank her even deeper in red ink. Because the insurance company deemed the storm an act of God, she received only $20,000. “What wasn’t floating in water was mildewed,” says Benjamin, who along with her receptionist saved patient files by “cooking” them in the sun for months.

These days she keeps her head above water by working as a part-time administrator for the University of South Alabama medical school. “That income and a lot of credit card debt keep me and the clinic going,” she says. Payments from the few patients who do have health insurance allow Benjamin to make the payroll for her nurses and two receptionists. (Operating costs are $140,000 a year.) In January she gained nonprofit status for the clinic, making it eligible for federal and state grants. “I want the clinic to be able to survive without me if I die in a plane crash tomorrow,” she says.

However meager the income, Benjamin’s work is not without its rewards. Patients unable to pay cash bring her fresh-caught shellfish, homemade pies and handpicked pecans. Her office is decorated with their handicrafts, from paintings to rag dolls. No patient, insists nurse Bosarge, exits the office without giving and getting a hug. “It’s the one thing that we’ve got plenty of,” she says. Adds the doctor: “Hugs make me feel better too.”

Good enough to stay put. Benjamin, who lives in a three-bedroom ranch home in nearby Spanish Fort, spends her scarce downtime shooting pool, skydiving and fending off patients who want their single doctor to get hitched. “They’re always matchmaking,” she says with a laugh, “but it never works out.” Her professional life is another matter. She is so optimistic about the clinic’s future that she plans to hire another doctor to join her. The help-wanted ad, she says, will read: “Long hours, low pay, great job satisfaction and all the shrimp and oysters you can eat.”

Christina Cheakalos

Nancy Wilstach in Bayou La Batre