Arizona’s top pandemic adviser overcomes difficult upbringing to succeed

Sep 29, 2021, 4:55 AM | Updated: 9:43 am

Dr. Richard Carmona, Arizona’s top pandemic adviser, served as U.S. surgeon general under Preside...

Dr. Richard Carmona, Arizona’s top pandemic adviser, served as U.S. surgeon general under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2006. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(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.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

File photo of Phoenix Police cruiser with lights on at night...

Collision leaves 1 dead, another seriously injured in north Phoenix

Police is investigating a collision that killed one adult man and seriously injured another in north Phoenix.

6 hours ago

File photo showing the side of a Phoenix police department SUV stopped in front of a wall on the si...

South Phoenix collision leaves 1 dead, 2 others hospitalized

Phoenix detectives are investigating a collision Sunday morning that left one passenger dead, two other people hospitalized.

6 hours ago

(KTAR file photos)...

Weekend wrap-up: Here are the biggest Phoenix news stories from March 1-3

From bad driving and airport expansions to crimes and sliders, here are some of the biggest stories in Phoenix from this weekend.

6 hours ago

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court has h...

Associated Press

Supreme Court decision on Trump’s election status could come Monday morning

A SCOTUS decision could come Monday in the case about whether Trump can be kicked off the ballot over his efforts to undo his 2020 defeat.

7 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley poses for a selfie after speakin...

Associated Press

Nikki Haley wins D.C. Republican primary, her first 2024 victory

Nikki Haley has won the Republican primary in the District of Columbia, notching her first victory of the 2024 campaign.

7 hours ago

FILE - A voting sign is seen near a voting center at Croft Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2024, in Sparta...

Associated Press

A chunk of Republican primary and caucus voters say they wouldn’t vote for Trump as the GOP nominee

About 1 in 10 early contest voters who said they supported Trump in the 2020 general election said they wouldn’t be doing so this year.

10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 


Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Arizona’s top pandemic adviser overcomes difficult upbringing to succeed