Sister Grace Mary Flickinger has been a teacher at Xavier University of Louisiana for "only 46 years," but she fought back tears as one of her former students, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the 18th U.S. surgeon general, returned home to run the university's newly created Department of Public Health Sciences.
"I'm fighting tears because I'm so proud," said the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament about Benjamin. "She's not just good -- she's fulfilling St. Katharine Drexel's mission. I'm sure St. Katharine Drexel is smiling down on a young woman who is living the mission of Xavier University."
Benjamin stepped down from her surgeon general's post in July, and one of the first telephone calls she received came from Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University, who said: "You know, Regina, you can come home."
"It was a very good feeling," Benjamin said Sept. 13 to an audience on the third floor of Xavier's University Center in New Orleans. "As I looked at other opportunities, they were very good opportunities, but there's none better. It's good to be home."
In her new role, Benjamin will review Xavier's public health curriculum and work with the School of Pharmacy, Arts and Sciences and the Center for Health and Health Disparities Research to give students the knowledge and motivation to launch a career in public health.
Xavier leads the U.S. in producing the largest number of African-American students who enter and complete medical school.
St. Katharine Drexel, a native of Philadelphia, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1925, she and the sisters founded Xavier, which is the nation's only historically black Catholic university.
Benjamin also will coordinate national and international conferences in New Orleans dealing with matters of public health, including a conference next year on the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general's warning against tobacco use that was placed prominently on all cigarette packs sold in the U.S.
Benjamin, who as surgeon general was the nation's leading public health advocate for almost four years, also will continue seeing patients on a volunteer basis at the small, affordable-care clinic she developed in Bayou La Batre, Ala., which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then burned to the ground after being rebuilt a few years later. Bayou La Batre is about a two-hour drive from New Orleans.
"I can't leave my patients, since I love seeing them and I need the clinical experience to keep up my clinical skills," Benjamin said.
The clinic that she founded is dear not only to her heart. When it burned down, the community rallied to help her rebuild it.
"I had a patient who was there, looking at the smoke and the embers and the fire trucks," Benjamin said. "She's an elderly lady, and she sent me an envelope from her granddaughter. In that envelope was $7, and she said that was to help rebuild that clinic. She didn't have that $7. I know (the clinic) affected the entire town."
Benjamin is passionate about stopping teens from smoking, and as surgeon general she stressed the idea of "tobacco-free campuses."
"Young people are the ones we need to affect," Benjamin said. "Ninety percent of all smokers start before the age of 18, and 99 percent start before the age of 26. If we can just get that young person not to take that first cigarette before they're 26 years old, they have less than a 1 percent chance of ever starting.
"The tobacco companies know that," she continued, "because they market over $1 million an hour -- $27 million a day -- to that 18- to 26-year-old. They know where their market is. We (also) know the market and where we can concentrate our energies."
Benjamin said her mother died of lung cancer and her father died of complications of a stroke and high blood pressure. Her brother died of HIV.
"(Those are) all preventable diseases," Benjamin said. "I don't want other people and other families to have to suffer that loss. I've been a longtime champion of the power of prevention."
Benjamin said Louisiana and Mississippi are tied for 49th among the 50 states in overall health rankings, and Louisiana has high rates of those who are medically underserved, obese and chronically ill "across all ages and all stages of life."
"I see this as a good thing," Benjamin said. "It offers an excellent opportunity for us to have this public health laboratory in which students and faculty can receive their training, carry out their research, engage a community and affect public policy. Ultimately, this can have a global impact."
She hopes to stress getting all Americans more active.
"The idea of health and wellness ... doesn't have to be boring or hard or dreadful," she said. "We all like to dance. Do you know anybody in New Orleans who doesn't like to dance? We can dance, we can move and we can have fun."
Sister Grace Mary said Benjamin's presence and personality will invigorate students and get them thinking about their own careers in public health.
"She has the ability because she has the knowledge to make a difference," Sister Grace Mary said. "Our graduates will become better leaders who will go out to create a more just and humane society. That's the real purpose of Xavier."
The official name of Benjamin's post is the NOLA.com/Times-Picayune Endowed Chair in Public Health Sciences. The media company has provided financial support for the chair.