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 Richard Carmona, M.D. 

U.S. Surgeon General
Bronx Community College, New York

By Evelyn L. Kent
Community College Times

Richard Carmona is one of those people who gets things done, and sometimes in the doing drops little bombs of reaction.

Take the day in 1999 when Carmona, an off-duty deputy with the Pima County, Ariz., sheriff’s department, stopped at an accident scene and realized that a man was holding a woman hostage in a nearby car. It turns out the man had just killed his father and tried to add Carmona to his list by shooting him in the head. Carmona returned fire and incapacitated the gunman. For this he won the Top Cop award from the National Association of Police Officers.

It’s a great story, but one might ask, “Isn’t that what police officers are supposed to do?” Well, yes, but this officer was also a trauma surgeon, the chairman of the State of Arizona Southern Regional Emergency Medical System and a professor of surgery, public health and family and community medicine at the University of Arizona.

Now, he’s the surgeon general of the United States, and he thinks he brings a valuable perspective to the table when talking about health policy. “I can bring a degree of realism to the discussion that other people don’t have,” Carmona said.

Born into poverty in New York City, Carmona dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army in 1967. He earned a GED and fought in Vietnam. After leaving active duty, Carmona earned an associate of arts from Bronx Community College in New York and eventually went on to the University of California Medical School, graduating at the top of his class.

So he knows from poverty.

“If you haven’t been hungry or gone without health care … what it’s like to go to school hungry … These things give me a greater empathy and greater understanding,” Carmona said.

“He lived the life of a health disparity before that was a term,” added spokesman Craig Stevens.

Now Carmona’s focus is on eliminating health disparities and on providing Americans with the knowledge to be healthy. “What we lack in society is health literacy,” Carmona said.

“The job of the surgeon general is to bring the science to people in the way they understand,” Stevens said. “It’s about closing that gap so Americans know what questions to ask when they’re being treated.”

 Carmona and the Department of Health and Human Services plan a campaign to increase health literacy that addresses several fronts: educating patients so they know to and how to question their doctors when they don’t understand health issues and educating doctors to spend time with patients and educate them about those health issues.

He’ll also try to bring the latest health research to the forefront of practice. “Often we’ll find that the best science will sit on the shelf for 10 years before it’s used,” Stevens said. By bringing scientists, practitioners and policy makers together, Carmona hopes to increase the reach of the campaign.

This campaign may have significant implications in the two areas that Carmona says are the greatest threat to Americans. “The top two killers that I look at in the U.S. right now are smoking -- and catching up quickly -- obesity,” Carmona said.

While terrorism is a concern for Carmona, “We lose many, many more lives every year from factors that we can control.”

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