Regina Benjamin, M.D., was winding her way through Chicago's Hyatt Hotel in 1996 to her first meeting as a member of the American Medical Association's board of trustees when an elderly, black hotel maintenance worker pulled her aside.
"He said, `I want you to know everybody in the hotel knows you're here, and we're very proud of you,' " said Benjamin, who is black. "That's when I recognized the great responsibility of being in this position."
Until last month, Benjamin, 44, was the only doctor in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a gulf fishing village of 2,000 populated by African-Americans, Cajuns, and Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants.
Benjamin has been practicing in the area since 1987. She was born in Mobile, Ala., 30 minutes north of Bayou La Batre; she lives just outside the city in suburban Daphne.
She first came to Bayou La Batre when the National Health Service Corps sent her to nearby Irvington, where she spent two years serving on a loan repayment program.
"This area feels like home to me," she says. "There's no better place than home. And there's such a need here. I feel appreciated and needed."
Besides treating the predictable illnesses and chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke, Benjamin has treated her share of patients with shrimp poisoning--a contact dermatitis contracted by handling shrimp--and fishing-related snags, cuts and hook injuries.
Her humble surroundings and small practice belie her myriad professional accomplishments and status within the medical community.
Benjamin is one of fewer than 7,200 practicing black female physicians in the U.S. That figure represents less than 4% of the nation's 177,000 female physicians and less than 1% of the country's 778,000 practicing doctors, according to 1998 physician survey information gathered by the AMA and 1990 census data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
* Helped found the AMA's Young Physicians Section in 1986 and the young physicians section of the Alabama Medical Association in 1988.
* In 1995 became the first African-American woman elected to the AMA's board.
* Was the U.S. recipient of the prestigious Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in 1998.
* Received CBS This Morning's "Woman of the Year" award for 1997.
But she's most at home in Alabama, where she didn't plan to be a groundbreaker. Benjamin, one of two children, was raised by her mother in tiny Daphne. It was a different time in a different Alabama. She never saw a black physician until she entered college.
After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham she worked in medically underserved areas of the state for the National Health Service Corps, which in turn paid off her student loans.
While an intern, Benjamin became active in the Alabama Medical Association.
She recalls how one physician with the state medical association told a committee: " `We don't need a black woman for this.' Now he's one of my biggest supporters," she says. "He got a chance to know me and that changed his mind."
Benjamin came to believe that she could accomplish more by working from within organized medicine.
"I could see that one person can make a difference and be a voice for patients," she says, citing an AMA resolution she supported as an intern to have classes on sexually transmitted diseases taught in medical schools.
The AMA passed that resolution, which was introduced by the Georgia delegation in 1985. Six months later classes on sexually transmitted diseases were included in the core curricula of every medical school in the country, according to Benjamin.
Timothy Flaherty, M.D., vice chairman of the AMA board and a diagnostic radiologist in Neenah, Wis., says Benjamin was a valuable board member.
"She gave us a perspective in her role as a young, solo, rural practitioner dedicated to educating her patients," Flaherty says. "Regina has unique skills, and she made the board more aware of and sensitive to minority issues. She was listened to very carefully."
Her determination also served her well in 1998, when gale-force winds from Hurricane Georges snapped a 50-foot pine tree, temporarily trapping Benjamin in her home. Three days later, the broken tree was cleared, and she made it to what was left of her clinic.
"I just wanted to cry. After three days of sweltering heat and water, everything was ruined. A decade of work and all of our equipment, computers, records everything down to the thermometers was destroyed. Mildew covered everything, and the stench was sickening," Benjamin recalls. "We had a hard time of it. But some people were worse off than we were. And luckily, nobody died. In the end we were grateful for that."
Because damage was from a natural disaster, insurance covered only the replacement costs for her medical records.
"To top it off, I had to pay to remove the X-ray machines," she says, now able to laugh at her misfortune.
With a Small Business Administration loan, she rebuilt her clinic, which reopened in April in another Bayou La Batre location. Until then Benjamin made house calls on her patients and referred them to other physicians outside town.
"We certainly missed her," acknowledges Gene Laurendeau, general manager of QF, a local seafood processor. "She's had a tremendous impact on this town, both on patients and business. With Dr. Benjamin, patients come first.
"This is a poor town, and if patients don't have the ability to pay, she works it out with them."