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Interview with Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., FACS: Part I


I had the honor and joy to spend some time speaking with Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of the United States. This week I will post a series of excerpts from my interview with this warm and remarkable man.

Readers of previous posts know that Dr. Carmona is a member of Healthline’s Board of Directors and now serves at the renowned Canyon Ranch, where he is vice chairman of the company, which many of you know as the world’s leading Life Enhancement Company. He is also CEO of Canyon Ranch Health, president of the non-profit Canyon Ranch Institute, and the first Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. Dr. Carmona has a lot on his mind that he wants to share with all of us about improving health and wellness. Here is some of what he has to say:

JC: Your career has included being a nurse, lifeguard, soldier, business executive, paramedic, SWAT team leader, and trauma surgeon. How did those experiences prepare you for your career now and as Surgeon General?

Dr. C.: There is a common theme that runs through all of them – I have been a first responder my whole life. In every one of those jobs, I have had to stay physically active and healthy to be able to perform my duties. This has given me an appreciation for the need for optimal health and wellness.

You can’t apply for the job as Surgeon General. The president of the United States asks you to do it and the U.S. Senate has to approve you for the position. I took a circuitous route to every other job you mentioned. I grew up poor; I was a high school dropout; I enlisted in the Army at age 17; and I went to Viet Nam and served as a Special Forces medic and weapons specialist. Eventually I became a trauma surgeon, a critical care doctor. Every one of those jobs contributed to my having a broad perspective of the health care system and prepared me for being Surgeon General with the biggest medical practice in the world – 300 million Americans.

Having walked in the shoes of the colleagues in each of the professions I worked in, I understood America’s health care problems from each profession’s perspective. The Office of the Surgeon General calls for multidisciplinary solutions to complex problems and I was prepared because of my experience in all of those different roles.

JC: Tell me about how you became a nurse

Dr. C: I was a paramedic when I left the service – Army Special Forces Training – in the early 1970s. And in California in those days you could get certification to become an RN with that training. I worked in Long Beach California as an emergency and critical care RN while I was going to school full-time.

JC: You were in medical school then?

Dr. C.: No, I had to start from the beginning, because I had been a high-school dropout. I worked as a nurse on the night shift and went to school full-time during the day. First I had to get a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) and then I went to college as an undergrad. This was just a couple of years after Viet Nam and I was the only male nurse at the hospital where I worked. The nurses saw that I was working hard, trying to study, and they had so much compassion for me. They really took care of me. It was as if they had adopted me. They gave me a hard time about going to medical school – leaving one great profession like nursing for medicine, but they understood. And that is why I remain such a champion of nurses today. My daughter is a nurse in Phoenix, Arizona. The nursing profession is one of the most untapped resources to unify the American people. Nurses are leaders and agents of change. Nurses can help change the behavior of Americans to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Nurses were there to help in New Orleans when Katrina struck – I deployed 2500 nurses to help. They are the most undervalued health care resource we have.

I am so happy I was a nurse first. When a doctor sees a patient, he sees a chief complaint. When a nurse sees a patient, she sees a person in an environment whose health is impacted by many factors. In my view, nurses embody kindness, compassion, and professionalism 24/7.

Thank you interplast for use of photo "PACU Nurse Tina Cerruti Reading to Post-op Patient"

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About the Author

The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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