By AUDREY FISCHER
"Everything I needed to know about dignity, honor, culture and diversity I learned from my abuelita," said U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, who delivered the 2003 National Hispanic Heritage Month keynote address at the Library on Sept. 17.
Only after his U.S. Army training reinforced these important life lessons did he realize the wisdom of his grandmother (abuelita) who came to this country from Spain in the 1930s and spoke no English.
"I was ashamed to speak Spanish," said the doctor, recalling his childhood in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. But his grandmother insisted he address her in her native tongue as a way of preserving the culture. She also encouraged him to "get an education; it will set you free." Instead, he dropped out of high school at 17.
The story of how this high school truant rose to the most powerful medical position in the country may be regarded as an example of the American dream. One might even call it luck, which Carmona defines as "the intersection of preparation and opportunity." But according to Carmona, it was "a series of fortuitous events and critical junctures, when someone extended a hand and showed me the right way." One such individual was a member of the Army's Special Forces who came through his neighborhood and suggested he enlist.
"It was the best thing I ever did," said Carmona. "The Army gave me a platform to be successful the rest of my life. It taught me about responsibility, accountability and allegiance. Special Forces taught me about tenacity and perseverance."
And the Army provided him with the opportunity to continue his education. In 1979 he earned his medical degree from the University of California at San Francisco, which awarded him the distinction of "top graduate."
Not everyone in his family was pleased when he announced his intention to become a doctor. "Our people don't do that," was the comment from his uncle, who clearly thought his nephew was venturing too far afield from his roots.
"Sometimes our culture binds us," observed Carmona. "History should be preserved, as it is here at the Library of Congress. But don't let it bind you. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box."
In 1998, Carmona earned a master's degree in public health from the University of Arizona, where he has also taught surgery, public health, and family and community medicine. He held a number of positions in the health care system of Pima County, Ariz., including those of chief medical officer, hospital chief executive officer and public health officer. He also served as a deputy sheriff and medical director of the county's police and fire department. On Aug. 5, 2002, he was sworn in as the 17th surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service.
"I didn't set out with the goal of becoming U.S. Surgeon General," said Carmona, who acknowledged that all of his experiences, education and training prepared him for this position.
"Many have asked how I got the job," said Carmona. "They ask if I knew the president or some other high-ranking official. The answer may seem far-fetched, but it is simply that I was qualified for the position. There's no other possible reason. I am extremely grateful to the president for giving a chance to this high school dropout who took advantage of all the wonderful things this country has to offer."
More than just "a chance," President George W. Bush has given Carmona the awesome responsibility of being the "arbiter of the best science the world has to offer." His number one priority is disease prevention, followed by emergency preparedness, and finally, the elimination of health-care disparities.
"The president wishes not only to address the health-care disparities between various groups but to eliminate them," said Carmona. So once again it comes down to respect for all cultures—the lessons he learned from his grandmother.
"I just wish my abuelita were with us today to hear me speak her words about cultural diversity," said Carmona.
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.