Surgeon General returns home to Alabama to talk with oil spill victims

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin returned home to the Gulf Coast, where physical and psychological illnesses triggered by BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been on the rise. Benjamin, a native of the Mobile area, ran a clinic that provides free and low-cost medical care to poor residents of Bayou La Batre before President Obama appointed her as Surgeon General.

Although Bayou La Batre has been repeatedly battered by hurricanes, Benjamin acknowledged that the residents of the town and the wider Gulf Coast face a new and even more formidable challenge – one that is causing great deal of emotional stress and anxiety.

“This oil spill is probably one of the most devastating things we’ve ever dealt with,” Benjamin told a crowd gathered at a local church. “We dealt with (Hurricane) Ivan and we dealt with Katrina, and this is different.”

Many of the people Benjamin spoke to included out-of-work and displaced seafood industry workers and some patients of Bayou Clinic, which still serves the community.

Benjamin also said that the seemingly unending nature of the BP oil spill is causing a multitude of health problems from stomach aches in children to substance abuse, suicide, and domestic violence in adults. Benjamin said that it was important for communities to pull together and to encourage neighbors to seek available help if they’re struggling with joblessness, financial hardship, anxiety, depression, and other illness as a result of the spill.

Many boat operators and shrimpers from the Gulf Coast’s Southeast Asian community are having an especially difficult time because they speak little English and cannot understand what is happening. There are no Vietnamese and Cambodian speaking therapists in the area who can help the immigrants with their anxiety and depression.

One man who can understand the Vietnamese fisherman is Vietnam-born Louisiana congressman Joseph Cao. Cao spoke with groups of Vietnamese Americans in May and found that many of them were in such despair over the oil spill and lack of work that they were considering suicide as the best solution.

Benjamin’s clinic, Bayou Clinic, still sees patients in the small town and many residents still call her “Doc.” Her picture still appears amongst the staff on the center’s website, where she is still listed as the founder and CEO. Her Gulf Coast tour also included stops in Mississippi and Florida.

Benjamin indicated that a sense of isolation and abandonment can set in among residents of the rural coastal communities.

“What we don’t want is for them to feel alone,” she said.