Illustrated portrait of Richard Carmona
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Throughout his life and career – from his time as a US Army Special Forces medic to his service as Surgeon General of the United States –  Richard Carmona has had two guiding lights: his mother, Lucy, and UCSF. 

Carmona, who was honored as the UCSF School of Medicine’s Alum of the Year at Alumni Weekend 2024, has worked at every level of health care, including as a registered nurse, paramedic, physician, and hospital and health system CEO. During his 2002-2006 tenure as surgeon general, for which he was confirmed unanimously by the US Senate, he issued landmark reports on the health of disabled people, secondhand smoking, and more. He is now a distinguished laureate professor of public health at the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health and a professor of surgery and pharmacy practice. 

In all of these roles, he has asked himself the same questions.

“I cannot tell you how many times I was faced with extraordinarily complex issues in government and academics, and I had to render an opinion or a decision,” he says. “I would think, ‘What would a UCSF doctor whom I trusted as my mentor say? What would my mom say, especially on the humanistic side? Am I doing the right thing for people?’ Those are the filters I still use today.” 

Gaining wisdom, training, and experience

When he first came to UCSF, Carmona thought he was lucky to get in.

“I’m very fortunate that UCSF took a chance on me because I didn’t have a great track record before that as a high school dropout and soldier,” he says. 

His cohorts felt the fortune was theirs.

“Even as a medical student, Rich already had the maturity, vision, and accomplishments to gain the respect and admiration that his classmates normally held for mature faculty mentors,” one of Carmona’s nominators for the alumni award says. “He was clearly beyond all of us in life experiences.”  

Raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s, Carmona came from a low-income, immigrant family in which no one had finished high school.  

“We went through homelessness a couple of times,” he says. “We didn’t have regular medical care. Didn’t have the best food. Now we call these issues ‘health disparities.’ When I got to UCSF, these were not theoretical concepts to me. I had lived through them.” 

He remembers his mother holding court on a small metal kitchen table under a single light bulb on a wire, as he and his brothers brushed away roaches. She was, in her own way, a fount of knowledge and always a seeker of it. She quizzed her children on politics and culture and urged them to learn about other cultures and languages; she herself spoke Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and Italian. 

“She taught me values and leadership that I needed to watch over my younger brothers and sister while she worked nights,” Carmona says. “I jokingly say that the older I get, the smarter my mother gets.” 

He would set aside schooling at first, becoming a Special Forces medic and weapons specialist and serving in Vietnam, earning several combat awards including two Purple Hearts. This experience didn’t only inform his later work in surgery and trauma care, it also provided lessons for his later career in public health.  

Returning to the US, Carmona entered college in an open-enrollment program for combat veterans and earned an associate’s degree from Bronx Community College. When he was ready to pursue medical school, UCSF stood out. 

“When I walked the halls and talked to students, there was a different vibe,” he says. “There was this sense of inclusion and purpose.”  

Carmona earned a bachelor’s degree in biology when it was still offered from UCSF, then a medical degree, graduating a year early. He was awarded the Gold-Headed Cane and thought he might make UCSF a permanent home, but his professors suggested he would thrive building new programs elsewhere. 

His future was, instead, in Washington, DC, of course, but also in the Southwest, where he built the first certified trauma system in the state at the University of Arizona and Tucson Medical Center. He also earned a Master of Public Health degree there in 1998 and worked in law enforcement, emergency medicine, and state public health administration. 

“I had all of these opportunities because I had UCSF after my name,” he says. 

Making the world a better place 

Carmona belongs to another, hyperspecialized form of alumni association: the fraternity of those who have served as surgeon general.  

They occasionally appear together in uniform to show their unity within science and medicine, whether they worked for a Republican, as Carmona did under George W. Bush, or a Democratic administration.  

“Once a surgeon general, always a surgeon general,” Carmona says. “We talk often. Some of us have worked for conservative administrations and some for liberals. And yet we don’t see patients as Republicans or Democrats. We see them as human beings who require our assistance.” 

Currently living in Tucson with his wife, Diana Sanchez, Carmona enjoys spending time with their two sons, two daughters, and four grandchildren. 

But retirement and leisurely hobbies aren’t quite his thing. He loves his work too much. 

“I want to make the world a better place,” he says. “That really is my fun.”  

As he reflects on his latest honor, he says his hope is that “my UCSF colleagues and others say: ‘You know what? We’re happy he became one of us. That we took a chance on him.’”  

And as Lucy’s son, he also hopes that “my mom is looking at me from wherever she is and is saying, ‘You listened to me finally.’” 

Award recipients featured in this video about global impact:
• Richard Carmona, MD ’80, MPH, Resident Alum, Clinical Fellow Alum - Medical Alumni Association Alum of the Year
• Laura E. Keyser, DPT ’08, MPH - Alumni Practitioner Award
• Ruth Arnold Smarinsky, PharmD ’83 - Pharmacy Alumni Association Alum of the Year
Find out what else awardees shared with us.
Access the videos