March 29, 2002

Former Green Beret picked for surgeon general spot; radiologist for NIH chief

Carmona’s resume reads like a Hollywood script

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday nominated a Arizona trauma surgeon and real-life action hero as surgeon general and a Johns Hopkins University administrator to be director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Elias Zerhouni was nominated as director of NIH, which performs and funds medical research, and Dr. Richard Carmona to serve as the nation’s highest-ranking doctor — still must be confirmed by the Senate.

President George W. Bush embraces his nominee for Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona of Tucson, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, left, applauds in the East Room Tuesday, March 26. Dr. Zerhouni is nominated to be the Director of the National Institute of Health. Photo by Tina Hager

“These are distinguished physicians who have worked tirelessly to save lives and to improve lives,” the president said Tuesday in an East Room ceremony at the White House attended by the nominees and their families.

“They bring exceptional knowledge and skills to these critical jobs and they are absolutely dedicated to improving the health and well-being of all Americans.”

Zerhouni said he never dreamt of such a privilege when he and his wife immigrated here from Algeria 27 years ago. Carmona, his voice breaking as he alternated between speaking Spanish and English, called his own nomination the American dream for “a high-school dropout and poor Hispanic kid.”

Bush joked that he almost nixed Carmona’s nomination after hearing how the doctor once dangled from a moving helicopter as part of a rescue mission.

“I worried that maybe he wasn’t the best guy to educate our Americans about reducing health risks,” Bush teased.

Zerhouni, who will administer the massive biomedical research programs at NIH, “shares my view that human life is precious and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefits of others,” Bush said.

Democrats promised a swift review and top administration officials expressed confidence both candidates would be easily confirmed.

“Dr. Zerhouni is a distinguished scientist with an impressive career as a scientific administrator,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. NIH has not had a permanent director for more than two years.

“I am also pleased that the president has moved to fill the position of the nation’s top doctor, and I look forward to learning more about Dr. Carmona’s record,” Kennedy added.

But Democrats said they knew little about Carmona, a medical school professor at the University of Arizona and a police hero.

Bush has been looking for a surgeon general ever since David Satcher, President Clinton’s appointment, announced last year that he would step down when his four-year term ended last month.

Carmona evidently dazzled Bush’s selection team with a resume that reads like a Hollywood script.

Carmona, 52 and registered as an independent, was born in Harlem. He dropped out of high school, joined the Army and earned a G.E.D. He then became the first member of his family to graduate from college and medical school.

In 1992, the doctor grabbed headlines and inspired a made-for-TV-movie by rappelling from a helicopter to rescue a person stranded on a cliff. This and other feats helped him earn one of 10 Top Cop awards from the National Association of Police Organizations in 2000.

In 1999, Carmona happened upon a car accident in Tucson, and stopped to help. Instead, he got into a shootout with one of the drivers.

The man, who had been assaulting a female driver, died, but not before Carmona attempted to mend his fatal wounds. The man turned out to be a suspect in the murder of his own father.

Carmona’s scalp was grazed by a bullet, his second wound in the same place. He got the first while fighting in Vietnam as an Army Green Beret.

In 1985, he created the first trauma care system in southern Arizona. A year later, he joined the Pima County Sheriff’s Department as a SWAT team member.

“You interview this guy, and it’s like reading a novel,” added Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. “I said, “Are you really real? And he said, ‘Absolutely.”’

As surgeon general, Carmona would, among other things, administer the 5,600-member Public Health Commission, which was deployed to New York and Washington on Sept. 11 and during the subsequent anthrax attacks. Bush also said the incoming surgeon general would focus on encouraging exercise to prevent diseases and reducing drug and alcohol abuse.

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