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N. Dakotan is Obama pick for federal health post

GRAND FORKS, N.D.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Since she was a child riding in the back seat of her aviator father’s Cessna 150 over the wheatfields of North Dakota, Mary Wakefield has understood the great expanse, opportunities and challenges of rural America.

“My view of North Dakota was from about 5,000 feet up,” she said in a 2002 interview. “You could see everything up there.”

On Friday, President Obama appointed Wakefield to oversee the Health Resources and Services Administration, which helps to deliver health care to the uninsured and underserved through Community Health Centers around the country.

Trained as a nurse, Wakefield, 54, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Texas and has become, according to a White House statement Friday, one of the nation’s top experts on rural health care. She is now director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota.

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Before returning to her native North Dakota in 2002, she was director of the Center for Health Policy, Research and Ethics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

She is not unfamiliar with Washington, having served as chief of staff for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and the late Sen. Quentin Burdick, N.D. As vice chairwoman of the North Dakota Democratic Party and a superdelegate to the party’s national convention last year, she was an early supporter of Obama, as was her former boss, Sen. Conrad.

Her professional and political credentials are not all that recommend her for the new job, the Grand Forks Herald noted in a congratulatory editorial today. She also brings “humility, of the kind known only by those whose lives have been touched by great tragedy.”

In 2005, a brother and two of his children were killed in a crash on Interstate Hwy. 94 outside the Twin Cities when another vehicle crossed the median and struck their van head-on. Wakefield’s sister-in-law and a surviving nephew were badly injured.

For a time, she later wrote, her work in rural health care didn’t seem to matter anymore. But nurses around the country responded. “This community of caring from the best of caregivers — from nurses — meant something,” she wrote.

HRSA oversees about 7,000 community clinics serving uninsured and low-income patients. The stimulus package recently signed into law by the president provides $2.5 billion to the agency to improve health care facilities and train medical professionals.