They aren't merely doctors; they're people who see the bigger picture, who succeed despite the bureaucracy and politics of modern medicine, who see their calling — helping those in need — as the central, and only, message of their day.
Dr. Regina Benjamin is one of those healers. The Alabama town of Bayou La Batre, where she works, is a better place because of her.
That is only one reason why President Obama nominated Benjamin on Monday to be the next U.S. surgeon general, the ceremonial chief of the U.S. Public Health Services.
If confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin, a finalist for The Star's 2008 Alabamian of the Year award, will become the latest Alabamian to hold the top public-health position in the United States. After being nominated by President Clinton in 1998, Anniston native David Satcher left his mark on the post by promoting responsible sexual behavior and reporting on the rise in tobacco use among racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States.
If anything, Benjamin's story is a compelling element to use in the campaign for better access to health care in America. She is not merely the Dixified version of Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN correspondent and national celebrity once considered the post's leading candidate. Gupta withdrew his name from consideration in March.
In Alabama, the Mobile native Benjamin is seen as an advocate for the poor and those without access to health care. She's a shining light in this age of debate over health insurance and its exorbitant costs. Her nonprofit medical clinic, once ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, destroyed again by fire in 2006, has been rebuilt not once, but twice. Today, it is still heralded for its treatment of low-income patients, many of whom do not have health insurance.
That headline Benjamin cannot escape. The Katrina-related portion of her story has given her an initial 15 minutes of fame, her own CNN moment.
But it would be a disservice to Benjamin if her reputation were built solely around that killer storm's effect on her clinic. Her tireless work on behalf of poor Americans needing health care cemented her reputation in south Alabama long before Katrina leveled its damage.
It is altogether appropriate that Obama would pick a doctor with such a strong belief in the necessity of providing affordable health care to all Americans.
Granted, the job of surgeon general is not an easy one. The years since the successful tenure of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop have not been kind to that office. The Bush administration mired the surgeon general post and its truncated office staff in the mess of Washington politics, neutering much of its ability to affect public awareness of health issues. Since 2006, the New York Times reports, "the position has been occupied by nearly invisible veterans of the commissioned corps."
It would be good for this nation if neither Benjamin nor her story remains invisible. She is no celebrity, no TV star. But she can make a difference.