From high school dropout to 17th surgeon general

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Dr. Richard Carmona tells students he got his own start at Bronx Community College.

By Amanda K. Tetens 

The road to success was not always paved in a straight line for Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. surgeon general. He shared his story with students at St. Philip’s College Oct. 9 to tell how community college helped him get where he is today.

Carmona, who grew up in New York City, said his family was poor and struggling.

“There wasn’t a day that (Mom) didn’t push us to be better,” Carmona said. His mother told her children the most important thing she owned was a library card, and she would bring books home every night for Carmona and his siblings to read, he said. However, Carmona didn’t make it out of high school.

Carmona said he decided the military was his way out in 1967. He said the U.S. Army was a transformative experience. He said everyone was equal and he got to see the world and learn to interact with people. While in the Army, the Special Forces caught his interest, but in order to join he needed a high school diploma.

Carmona obtained his GED and made it into Special Forces, where he saw the world, went to Vietnam, lost friends along the way and was wounded but came back a much more mature man.

Carmona said his colleagues in the Army talked him into applying for college. He said he would apply but couldn’t make any promises. After that, Carmona was surprised to open an acceptance letter from Bronx Community College, where he started his higher education.

“I was more afraid of going to college than to combat,” Carmona said.

Next for Carmona was the University of California, San Francisco, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science and M.D., specializing in trauma, burns and critical care. He graduated a year early at the top of his class.

He said it wasn’t because he was the smartest kid in class, but he was the most focused, disciplined, and determined.

Later, at the Tucson Medical Center and the University of Arizona, he started the state’s first regional trauma care system. While an assistant professor at the university, Carmona obtained his master’s degree and was the Pima County Sheriff’s Department surgeon and deputy sheriff.

In 2002, the White House called Carmona to say President George W. Bush had nominated him for 17th Surgeon General of the United States. Carmona was convinced it was a prank from the guys at the office. But reality came into play when he was standing in the Oval Office with the president himself, along with Carmona’s wife and children.

“It was a surreal experience,” Carmona said.

He said he was surprised because he was also the first surgeon general to be confirmed unanimously by the Senate.

“There is not a day that goes by that I make sure this isn’t a dream,” Carmona said.

Carmona makes a point to visit any community college campus that he can. He says community colleges are unappreciated assets and can be launching pads.

Carmona said he used Bronx Community College as a launching pad.

He said if education were easy, everyone would be doing it.

“The difference of the one that succeeds and the one that fails is the one that stays down and (the one who) gets back up,” Carmona said.


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