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Dr. Desmond Carson high fives medical student Pam Schwendy in the emergency department of Doctors Medical Center. Carson, 52, named a Hometown Hero, has been saving lives in the Doctors Medical Center emergency room since 1998 and been a fierce advocate for his chronically underfunded hospital and public health in West Contra Costa County. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

SAN PABLO -- Minutes after the crackling gunfire and screeching rubber, the fallout hits Dr. Desmond Carson.

As an emergency room physician, Carson has seen hundreds of young men, women and children wheeled in with bullet-riddled bodies.

He can't unsee the dead, the last breaths and the miraculous recoveries. Nor does he want to.

"You get tired of seeing black boys and Mexican boys killed, it's depressing, but it also is right there, a truth you can't hide or gloss over," Carson said. "It's a public health disgrace. If this kind of carnage happened in a white community, there would be a national uproar."

Dr. Desmond Carson and medical student Pam Schwendy discuss treatments for a patient in the emergency department of Doctors Medical Center. Carson, 52,
Dr. Desmond Carson and medical student Pam Schwendy discuss treatments for a patient in the emergency department of Doctors Medical Center. Carson, 52, named a Hometown Hero, has been saving lives in the Doctors Medical Center emergency room since 1998 and been a fierce advocate for his chronically underfunded hospital and public health in West Contra Costa County. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Carson, 52, has been saving lives in the Doctors Medical Center emergency room since 1998, and is a fierce advocate for his chronically underfunded hospital and public health in West Contra Costa County.

In April, Carson earned the Richmond Excellence Serving our Community award, granted by Richmond and the Richmond Community Foundation. The award committee noted Carson's cofounding of a team of health care professionals to provide free stroke and heart attack-prevention clinics, mentoring Richmond High School students interested in medicine, and coaching the Richmond Steelers, a pee-wee football team.


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"Desmond is a guy with a sterling educational background who could work anywhere in the country," said Eric Zell, who served five years with Carson on the hospital's board of directors. "But he chooses to work at a safety-net hospital that serves low-income and uninsured or underinsured people. You don't see a lot of people do that."

Carson grew up in south Richmond, just off Carlson Boulevard near what is now the Crescent Park housing complex. Eastshore Park, since renamed Booker T. Anderson Park, was where he played after-school sports.

Carson and his two younger sisters went to St. Joseph's Catholic School in Berkeley and later to El Cerrito High School.

Dad worked at a packaging company in Berkeley, and Mom was a nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Richmond.

Carson went to UC Berkeley, where he studied biophysics, and later studied medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

It was during his residency at Martin Luther King Jr. medical center in Los Angeles that Carson saw firsthand the toll of grinding inner-city violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, the crack cocaine epidemic gripped the Los Angeles area, and gang violence was on the rise. Carson remembers the September 1996 night that rap star Tupac Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas. The MLK medical center looked like a war zone, he said.

"We had 18 people shot that night, in the head, the chest, the stomach, arms and legs," Carson said. "That was the most I've ever seen. It seemed like I was performing surgery on trauma victims all night."

Today, Carson is that rare physician who is totally in sync with the community he serves, trusted by generations of patients and possessing an empathy and understanding befitting his local background.

"He knows everybody, and everybody knows him, I have never seen anything quite like it," said Dr. Malcolm Johnson, the emergency department medical director. "In this community, the ER doctor is also a de facto primary care doctor, and Desmond plays that role as well as it can be done."

Johnson said Carson, whom he describes as a "mentor," is at his best in times of crisis.

When a massive fire broke out at the nearby Chevron refinery in August, Carson, a veteran of many other chemical spills and industrial explosions in West Contra Costa County, took command.

"I recall him saying to everybody, 'Get the tents out!'" Johnson said, referring to emergency triage tents to handle the imminent surge of patients. More than 15,000 people sought medical treatment in the hours and days after the fire, several thousand at Doctors Medical Center.

"That was the impetus, and when the patient surge came, we were ready, and Desmond performed marvelously," Johnson said.

Carson, who lives in the city where he grew up, said he isn't immune to the emotions that come with working in an emergency room.

"It's tough," Carson said. "I lean on my wife and my kids for support, and I have no problem getting on my knees and asking God's help."

Carson said that whatever emotional toll the bloodshed has on him, it pales in comparison with what young people in the community face.

"These kids out here in Richmond and North Richmond see this violence every day, and there aren't any psychologists running around these communities to treat these kids for post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "You can't see the scars on someone's soul, but they are there."

Looking ahead, Carson expects to transition away from the emergency room and spend more time doing public health outreach, volunteering with the Richmond Steelers football program and advancing public health initiatives as a director of For Richmond, a coalition of business and labor leaders dedicated to improving Richmond.

"There's always this fear of being the old guy on the basketball court who can't play anymore, and somebody else has to tell him it's time to move," Carson said. "I don't want to be that old guy trying to run with these youngsters on the ER floor."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.

desmond carson
Age: 52
Hometown: Richmond
Claim to fame: Emergency room physician at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo
Quote: "When you've seen what I've seen, it takes something out of you; you lose something to know you live in a world where people do this to each other."
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. A video also is available at ContraCostaTimes.com Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.