Growing up in Guyana, his parents encouraged him to dream big. Now he’s the AHA president
(By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS) MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – With a father who worked as a postmaster and a mother who was a homemaker, Ivor Benjamin grew up under modest circumstances.
The Benjamins lived in Guyana, a small nation on the Caribbean side of South America. Their home in Beterverwagting was about 9 miles outside Georgetown, the capital city. Ivor was the second child among five children.
“Our family didn’t necessarily have ‘riches’” he said of his formative years. “But what we did have was a pioneering spirit. My parents gave us this sense that we can get up and go – that we can aspire.”
On many of these occasions, his mother, Edna Benjamin, would say, “Maybe one day you’ll be like your great-uncle James.”
James Henry Murrell – Mrs. Benjamin’s uncle and Ivor’s great-uncle – exemplified the family’s legacy of the world’s boundless possibilities. He left Guyana in the late 1890s and was educated in the United States, then earned a medical degree from the University of Glasgow (Class of 1922) in Scotland. He settled in Ghana and, purportedly, performed the first blood transfusion on Africa’s Gold Coast. In his honor, Ivor’s middle name is James.
As it turns out, Ivor Benjamin did in many ways become like great-uncle James.
Guyana at the time did not have its own medical school, but fueled by parental encouragement and an innate desire to achieve, he became a cardiologist and scientific researcher. He’s risen to prominent roles at university medical programs across the nation. Along the way, he became involved with the American Heart Association. From joining committees to editing journals, he’s risen through the ranks of the organization’s volunteer leadership.
On July 1, he became the AHA’s 82nd president, beginning a yearlong tenure.
“Under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin, we are inspired by the possibilities he brings to further our mission,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said. “His intellect, passion, desire to help others and pioneering spirit are the hallmarks of our association and the foundation for our future.”
As a youngster, Ivor excelled in school, especially in mathematics and the natural sciences. When he wasn’t focusing on academics, he enjoyed meeting up with friends to play sports. His mother, however, wasn’t keen on those outings and would often prioritize academic studies over sports and play. So his beloved grandma stepped in and hatched a plan.
About once a week, Grandma went to the market and brought along young Ivor to help. At least, that was the cover story for him to play ball. Mom never caught on, even when the trips occurred more often and lasted longer. Ivor developed a strong connection with his grandma, who recognized his talents and helped him enjoy time playing a game he loved.
The relationship Ivor had with his grandma would serve as a defining relationship in Ivor’s childhood. When Ivor was 9, his grandma – his mother’s mother and great-uncle James’ sister – suffered a stroke.
“My entire world came crashing down,” he said.
She moved into the room he shared with his brother where he fed her and helped with other caregiving needs. She essentially became his first patient. She passed away a year later.
“That was probably when the seeds of wanting to become a doctor were planted,” he said.
After Ivor finished high school, his family moved to the United States.
His mother paved the way, becoming a housekeeper for a young family in New Jersey. When she saved enough for her family, she sent for everyone else.
His father, who’d worked his way up to being one of the three chief postmasters in Guyana, got a job at a bank in New York. Ivor worked during the day and then sought a college that offered night classes. He also needed a campus that was close and convenient and picked Hunter College.
It just so happened the convenient school he chose also produced world-class scientists.
After one year at Hunter College, Benjamin was selected for a Thomas Hunter Honors curriculum.
The program provided the freedom to study as he desired. And through a summer enrichment program for minority students, he did cardiovascular physiology research at Cornell University Medical School.
Benjamin’s commitment to education and love of science paid off when he was accepted to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He worked in the lab of Bernadine Healy who would go on to become president of the AHA and the first female National Institutes of Health director.
While completing his residency at Yale, his father called suddenly. Something had happened to his mom. She couldn’t speak, but she managed to scribble on a napkin, “Call Ivor.”
His mother had a stroke, triggered by hypertension-induced atrial fibrillation. Benjamin believes that’s what his grandma similarly had suffered. Luckily, his mom received immediate care and recovered quickly. Six months later, his mother recovered and accompanied him on a trip to Europe to celebrate the end of his medical training and start of his medical career.
After seeing two of his family members suffer from strokes, Benjamin had a new interest in understanding health events within families and not solely one patient at a time. This encouraged a budding career as a cardiology researcher as he aimed to understand how to prevent future health events that ran in his own family.
“I recognized that being a phenomenal physician was necessary, but not sufficient,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to help people on a larger scale.”
After his residency and internship at Yale, Benjamin entered a fellowship at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. While there, he was among the earliest recipients of the Minority Medical Faculty Development Award given by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The funding allowed him to join a lab at Duke University Medical Center, where he studied molecular cardiology under R. Sanders Williams.
When Williams went as Division Chief of Cardiology to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Benjamin was appointed to the faculty. As an attending cardiologist, one of the first medical residents he worked with in Dallas was Dr. John Warner. Benjamin is now succeeding Warner as AHA president.
While in Dallas, Benjamin earned his first AHA grant. It came during the first research investment by the Henrietta B. and Frederick H. Bugher Foundation. The Bugher Foundation has gone on to invest more than $48 million in AHA-guided research, primarily into previously underfunded areas. Benjamin is the first Bugher-funded researcher to become AHA president.
In 2003, Benjamin became Division Chief of Cardiology at the University of Utah. Patients, research, advancing an academic mission – this job had it all. In 2009, he received a crowning achievement in his research portfolio, a $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The grant proposal funded studies of how certain inherited modes of heart failure, which share similar features of neurodegenerative disorders, contribute to protein misfolding conditions and the extremes of oxidative metabolic stress, termed reductive stress.
In 2013, Benjamin relocated to Milwaukee to be the Director of the Cardiovascular Center at The Medical College of Wisconsin, a role in which he continues to serve.
Throughout Benjamin’s career, he has remained committed to the mission of the AHA to improve cardiovascular health while reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease and stroke in all communities.
It started in Dallas, mostly with scientific work such as a peer-review committee. He’s gone on to chair the Scientific Publishing Committee, the International Committee and the Research Committee. He’s on the editorial board of many of the AHA’s top publications, including Circulation and a founding member on the board of the Journal of American Heart Association.
“I just did what was the natural fit for me,” he said.
When it was time to pick Warner’s successor, the AHA’s leaders naturally felt Benjamin would be an excellent president.
“I am a very blessed human being to be in this space,” he said. “I do not take it for granted.”
Benjamin credits his family as a key source of pride and stability.
He’s been married to his wife, Carol Benjamin, for 30 years. They have two sons and a daughter. Their oldest son, Lawrence Benjamin, is a resident in internal medicine; their other son, Alexander Benjamin, is in hospital administration; and their daughter, Charis Benjamin, is pursuing graduate studies in Maternal Health and Biostatistics.
One of Dr. Benjamin’s fondest memories was when he took his children to Guyana to explore where he grew up. While on this trip, he shared stories and lessons and showed his children the family’s roots.
A lesson he passed on to the next generation was a line he heard many times from his father, one penned by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Choose well, son, for your choice is brief, and yet endless.”
Benjamin considers the line a call to action – a challenge to make his world, and the world at large, a better place.
It’s a responsibility he’s eager to take on as AHA president, a role he’s essentially been preparing for his entire life.