Carmona, Richard: 1949—: U.S. Surgeon General

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Richard Carmona: 1949: U.S. Surgeon General

In April of 2002, President George W. Bush nominated Dr. Richard Carmona for the position of U.S. Surgeon General. Before the U.S. Senate confirmed him, the nation learned that their "Top Doc" had a resume that read like the remarkable biography of an action hero. The high school dropout from a poor, Puerto Rican family, Carmona served in the Army, worked as a surgeon and professor, and as a part-time sheriff's deputy. Bush thought that Carmona's experience in emergency management, bioterrorism, and law enforcement suited him perfectly for the role of U.S. Surgeon General after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Born Richard Henry Carmona on November 22, 1949, Carmona was raised in New York City's Spanish Harlem neighborhood. His Puerto Rican family was poor, and, like many of his friends, Carmona dropped out of high school. Many of Carmona's childhood friends went on to pursue lives of crime but, at age 17, Carmona chose to avoid that destiny and joined the U.S. Army. He also earned his high school equivalency diploma, or G.E.D.

Early Career Full of Intensity

Carmona's Army career included combat in Vietnam in the Army Special Forces as a Green Beret and medic, for which he earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, among other decorations and awards for service. When his Army service was complete, Carmona returned to civilian life, marrying his childhood sweetheart and pursuing his college education at the University of California-San Francisco while working different jobs. He graduated college with honors in 1976, and was accepted into the University of California-San Francisco Medical School. He not only graduated from medical school at the top of his class, earning the prestigious Gold Headed Cane award, but was also the first student in the school's history to complete the four-year program in three years. He pursued training as a surgeon, then specialty training in trauma surgery.

Carmona headed to Tucson, Arizona, in 1985 to head the first trauma-care program in the region. A year later, he joined the Pima County sheriff's office as a doctor and SWAT team member. He also served as a clinical professor of surgery, public health, and family and community medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. In 1992, after a medevac helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain, Car-mona rescued the sole survivor by dangling from another chopper on a rope, lashing the wounded paramedic to himself, and carrying him three miles to safety. The incident reportedly inspired a movie.

At a Glance . . .

Born Richard Henry Carmona on November 22, 1949, in New York City, NY. Education: University of California-San Francisco, BA, 1976, MD 1978; University of Arizona, MA, public health, 1998. Military Service : US Army Special Forces, c. 1966-70.

Career: Trauma Care System, Tucson, AZ, director, 1985-2002; Pima County sheriff's department, doctor and SWAT team leader, 1986-2002; University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, clinical professor of surgery, public health, and family and community medicine; Pima County Public Healthcare System, director 1997-99; US Surgeon General, 2002.

Memberships: State of Arizona Southern Regional Emergency Medical System, chairman, 1990-2002.

Awards: Awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for combat during the Vietnam War; Gold Head Crane Award, University of California-San Francisco; "Top Cop" award from the National Association of Police Organizations, 2000.

Address: Office U.S. Surgeon General, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Rm. 7166, Washington, DC 20201.

In September of 1999, on his way to a University of Arizona football game, Carmona pulled off the road to assist a traffic accidenta pickup truck had rear-ended a car. When Carmona approached the truck, onlookers told him the driver was armed. Though Carmona was off duty, he still was carrying a gun and, after calling for backup, asked the driver to put down his weapon. The driver appeared to follow Carmona's instructions, but suddenly fired on the doctor, grazing Carmona's head. Carmona fired seven shots, three of which hit the man and killed him. It was later discovered that the man was a mentally ill ex-convict who had murdered his father earlier that day.

Questioned About Past

In April of 2002, President George W. Bush nominated Dr. Richard Carmona as his choice for the position of U.S. Surgeon Generala position previously held by Dr. David Satcher, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1998 and whose term had expired. After Bush nominated Carmona for the post, he was required to face a confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Critics questioned Carmona's qualifications to be America's top doctor. Some called into question the shooting incident, calling him a "cowboy," but the Senate did not question him about the incident. His critics also noted that it took him eight years and two failed attempts before he passed the board certification for his specialty, general surgery. An article in the Los Angeles Times alleged that he had inaccurately completed an application to become an emergency room physician. Carmona acknowledged that it did take him that long, but pointed out that it had no bearing on his performance. "I don't think anybody has ever questioned my competency or my ability as a surgeon," he is quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune.

Though Bush had praised Carmona's "strong management background," according to the Boston Globe, Carmona's critics cited his mixed record as an administrator. Pima County's health care system continued to lose millions of dollars after he took over in 1997, and he eventually was forced to resign. When questioned about his past disputes with personnelwhich were reportedly rockyhe described them as "business disputes" with bitter former employees. Carmona described himself as someone who shook things up at the county health system. "At times, that's upsetting to people who live in the status quo," he explained, according to the Boston Globe.

Carmona, a registered independent, fluently understands a wide array of public health issues, including asthma, childhood obesity, HIV/AIDS, and the contemporary threat of terrorism. In fact, Carmona became concerned with the threat of bioterrorism years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought the threat into focus for the general population. He led lectures and preparedness drills in emergency rooms on the topic. After September 11, he was charged with structuring the terrorist emergency plans for Southern Arizona. As surgeon general, he leads the 5,600 public-health officers who deal with national emergencies.

Carmona's views on such charged public-health issues as abortion and fetal-tissue research remain unknown, although a presidential spokesman pointed out that it would make the most sense for the president to nominate someone whose beliefs were in line with his own. He was noncommittal on his views about gun use, but clearly stated his opposition to the tobacco indus-try's targeting of minors with advertising. He claimed he would work to dissuade America's youth from even recreational drug use, and encourage Americans to exercise more. Carmona was confirmed in August of 2002 by a senatorial vote of 98 to zero, with two senators absent.



American Medical News, April 15, 2002, p. 27.

Boston Globe, July 10, 2002, p. A2.

British Medical Journal, July 20, 2002, p. 123.

Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2002, p. 8; July 24, 2002, p. 16.

Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2002, p. A16.

Time, April 8, 2002, p. 57.

USA Today, March 27, 2002, p. A1.

Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2002, p. B5.

Washington Post, July 10, 2002, p. A15.

On-line, (February 5, 2003).

National Review, (January 15, 2003).

"Richard Carmona - Biographical Sketch," Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, (January 15, 2003).

Brenna Sanchez