Dr. Regina Benjamin, the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, has gone from being bothered by reporters to embracing the chance to be interviewed.
Speaking to an audience of about 100 in a half-filled auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago earlier this week, the first female African-American doctor whose job is to care for 300 million Americans admitted she used to hate when journalists would call.
“A reporter would call and say, ‘I want to interview you,’ and I was annoyed because I wanted to see patients,” said the former small-town family practice phyisician in Louisiana in her MacArthur Fellows Science Lecture.
But after one local article sparked a pile of letters from third graders who said they wanted to grow up and be like her, she changed her mind.
“Those articles were not about me,” Benjamin said, nodding to her sorority sisters in the audience from Delta Sigma Theta. “They were about them. I have been answering reporters ever since. You never know who is watching you. And with that comes responsibility.”
Sure, the former MacArthur Fellow spoke about major health issues facing Americans– obesity, poverty, sexually transmitted diseases, breastfeeding, substance abuse, violence and the overall healthcare system– but her focus on personal responsibility for influencing the wider culture was what stuck.
“I want to change the way we think about health,” Benjamin said to nods and applause. “We have to move from a system focusing on sick care to a system focused on prevention and wellness.”
Formerly criticized as someone who was not a lean example of perfect health, Benjamin said she considered walking as “taking medication,” and said her own walk in the Grand Canyon proved any and every American can become active.
Admitting “you can’t legislate behavior,” Benjamin was as patient answering audience questions ranging from the absurdly personal to the contextually thoughtful, as she said she is from reporters.
Speaking about her own grandmother’s move to start an all-black church in Lousiana decades ago, Benjamin advocated for “servant leadership,” and her own model of “leadership from behind.” She explained that this philosophy centers on the notion that “you don’t forget to reach behind and pull someone else up. You also push them out in front of you and let them know you have their back. They will know you will not let them fall. ”
It was an uplifting prescription for success and one I wish more from every profession would adopt.