Arizona’s top pandemic adviser overcomes difficult upbringing to succeed
Sep 29, 2021, 4:55 AM | Updated: 9:43 am
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — Dr. Richard Carmona, Arizona’s top pandemic adviser and former U.S. surgeon general, had a big mountain to climb to get to where he is now after a difficult upbringing in New York.
“Like everybody on the block, you’re in a survival mode, you’re living week to week, month to month,” he said. “I experienced homelessness a couple times as a child, not sure what you’re going to eat some nights, delayed healthcare.”
Carmona is the oldest of four. His parents are from Puerto Rico and his grandparents immigrated from Spain.
He and his siblings grew up in the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods in New York. Their dad was mostly absent.
“My mother was almost a single mom because my pop – good guy – but mostly spent his time outside in the streets,” Carmona said, adding he wishes he could have gotten to know him better.
Carmona’s mom worked hard to make sure he and his siblings had what they needed, and she kept the family together through difficult times. Carmona recalled seeing eviction notices on their door and becoming homeless when the rent wasn’t paid.
“Mom was really, really tough,” he said. “She never faltered and always, always took care of her kids.”
Carmona’s grandmother from his dad’s side also helped raise him. He described her as the “matriarch of the family” who taught him the importance of hanging on to his roots.
“Abuelita made me speak Spanish to her, and she was very proud of her culture and upbringing,” he said. “She talked about the history of Spain, and the world and explorers – things that I didn’t understand as a child. But now I really understand the great wisdom that she had.”
Despite his mom and abuelita stressing the importance of getting an education, Carmona and his siblings all dropped out of high school.
Carmona said he also didn’t listen to his high school counselors who encouraged him to do more and saw potential in him.
Soon after he dropped out of high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and got his GED while serving. His high school counselors stayed in touch with him. And after a combat tour in Vietnam, they helped him enroll in college.
He credits his high school counselors and his military service for helping him “capitalize on all of the great opportunities that this nation has” and showing him what he was capable of accomplishing.
“I went from active duty to the reserves, and then I worked lots of jobs – as an ocean lifeguard, as a registered nurse, paramedic, police officer, teacher,” he said. “I just kept on getting educated like my mom and grandma told me to do.”
He earned a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health. In 2002, he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the 17th U.S. surgeon general under President George W. Bush.
In August, Carmona joined Arizona’s COVID-19 response team. He was tasked to serve as the senior advisor on public health emergency preparedness and to lead a statewide effort to boost vaccine and public health awareness in Arizona.
He continues to mentor young people who, like him growing up, have great potential but are struggling.
“A lot of people say, ‘It takes a lot of time, why do you do that?” he said. “I say because it is my responsibility. If someone hadn’t reached out to me, I wouldn’t be here today.”