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When a patient asked Dr. Pamela R. Benitez in 2005 if she knew of any organization that could help pay her bills, the breast cancer surgeon at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak didn't know what to say.

So instead of shrugging off the question, Benitez met with her patient at a Ferndale restaurant, along with Suzanne Kruger, one of the patient's friends.

By the end of the meal, the three had sketched out plans on a napkin for what has since become the Shades of Pink Foundation. Since then, the foundation co-founded by Benitez and Kruger has raised more than $1.8 million to help women diagnosed with breast cancer in seven Michigan counties.

More: Meet the 2019 Michiganians of the Year

As many as 200 women per year receive grants of $1,000 to $3,000 to help with rent, utility bills, child care, car payments and other expenses that are often disrupted when people get sick.

"It just gets them through a very difficult time in their life when they just don’t know where to turn, and they can move on in their journey with breast cancer," said Benitez, of Bloomfield Hills. "We’re just taking one huge piece of their worry away from them."

Benitez grew up in the 1960s and credits her parents for encouraging her to join a profession that few women at that time considered. Her dad was a military doctor, her mother was a nurse, and her childhood was spent living at military bases around the world. 

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Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak breast cancer surgeon Dr. Pamela R. Benitez is the co-founder, VP and medical director of the Shades of Pink Foundation. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

"I remember I wanted to be a doctor at age 4. We were in Germany. For some reason, it just dawned on me and I never wavered," she told The News. 

Benitez joined Beaumont Health System in 1988, but it was her sister's 1994 breast cancer diagnosis that convinced her to specialize in breast cancer surgery. 

"I brought her here to Beaumont from Newark, and I went through that entire experience with her ... mostly as her sister, but doing all the homework that I could to see what else we could do besides the standard of care treatment, which I do believe in," said Benitez, whose sister has fully recovered. 

Her husband, John B. Molidor, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and human development at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine, said Benitez "blends the best of the intellect and expertise with a huge caring heart, and obviously that’s what we want in all of our physicians." 

During a recent interview in her office at Beaumont's Rose Cancer Center, Benitez counseled a patient on nutrition, then ended the session with a hug.

Hugs aren't uncommon for Benitez, said Shades of Pink Executive Director Karla Sherry, who observed the doctor's charisma during April's "A Wild Time at The Detroit Zoo," the foundation's biggest annual fundraising event. 

"Dr. Benitez spoke for a few moments, and when she got off the stage, hundreds of (former patients) were just hugging her," Sherry recalled. "It’s still choking me up." 

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

Name: Dr. Pamela R. Benitez

Age: 68

Occupation: Breast cancer surgeon, Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak

Education: Bachelor of Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; Doctorate of Medicine, Albany Medical College of Union University, Albany, New York.

Family: Married to John Molidor 

Why honored: Co-founded Shades of Pink Foundation, raising more than $1.8 million since 2005 to assist breast cancer patients with rent, mortgage payments, utility bills and other financial necessities during their treatment.

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