You watch Dr. Dale Carrison hustling around the University Medical Center emergency room in his black-and-red high-top Nikes, a cellphone often at his ear, and it’s easy to forget he was born before even half of Americans had telephones, when TV had yet to become a commercial success.
When he reaches patient Tiwana Lofton, she’s near tears, in obvious pain. He listens carefully as she describes her symptoms. She grimaces when he gently presses her abdomen. Tests are ordered as he holds her hand.
He assures her he’ll find the problem. Then, he switches to Spanish to speak with a relative of a stroke patient in a nearby bed. “Gracias,” the tearful man says, grateful for the news about his loved one.
The 74-year-old physician is halfway through a nine-hour day of seeing one patient after another.
Falls from racing motorcycles, coupled with the wear and tear of accosting thugs in his earlier professional life as a deputy sheriff and FBI agent, have forced Carrison to have a knee replacement and back and neck surgeries in the past two years.
But the three surgeries together sidelined him for only a month.
His 6-foot-4-inch height still produces a gait that frequently seems more run than walk.
As he moves, he talks. A lot. About many things. His dear sister’s suicide last year, other planets.
Space, he argues, is “the next frontier you don’t want to miss.”
That spirit for adventure pushed him into medical school in his 40s, making him a fledgling physician at the unheard of age of 51.
It also fueled his meteoric rise to head of emergency medicine and UMC chief of staff, to a professorship at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, to state homeland security chief and medical directorships with the Clark County Fire and Metropolitan Police departments, Mercy Air and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Today, with Carrison’s passion for the hectic world of emergency medicine growing stronger at an age when most people are retired, examining his extraordinary life — one that’s defied cultural norms for 60 years — makes sense. As he always says, “You never know when you’ll learn something you can use.”
Dr. John Pierce is sure Carrison’s unconventional early life gives others hope. Carrison nearly flunked out of high school, drank until he blacked out and got into trouble with the law.
“I didn’t want to be a bouncer at Cheetah’s all of my life,” the Las Vegas physician says. “Dale showed me your dreams can be realized if you work hard. You don’t have to be a prisoner of your past.”
The kind of full life Carrison has chosen to live in his later years is exactly what Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, head of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, has insisted is one crucial way for 77 million baby boomers to help keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay.
Research shows that you either use your brain or you lose it, he says.
“I think I would deteriorate rapidly if I wasn’t in an environment where I had a chance to make things better,” he says as he sits in his UMC office. “I want to be around people who are always wanting to learn new things. And that has nothing to do with chronological age.”
Carrison was born to a farmer and homemaker in tiny Macomb, Ill. His early life in Georgia, California and Florida did not suggest he’d ever be a positive example for anyone. He grew rebellious when his parents’ marriage was in turmoil. His mother, who he later learned was bipolar, could be loving one day and hell on Earth the next.
“You never knew what to expect,” he says. “My sister, who committed suicide, who I basically raised, always blamed my mother for her becoming bipolar. It was crazy.”
He blacked out on alcohol at age 16 while living in Pensacola, Fla. Downing Grey, a friend from then who Carrison still stays in touch with, remembers when they used gunpowder to blow things up.
“It basically wasn’t anything more than garbage cans,” he said recently.
Still, Carrison got arrested and became the cops’ favorite suspect for juvenile mischief. When a friend took his dad’s car out racing, those with him, including Carrison, were arrested and had to be bailed out by parents.
By his own admission he was a screw-up, and his grades barely got him through school. But Carrison showed potential on standardized tests for college; his scores were good enough to get him into Florida State University in 1958.
But he says he flunked out when he couldn’t lay off the booze.
He enlisted in the Navy when he was about to be drafted into the Army. In boot camp, he says, “something clicked.” He fed off the discipline and became an honor man, proving to himself that he could succeed.
His grades were terrible, but he persuaded naval authorities to let him take the entrance test for a Naval Academy prep school. He passed that test, and later passed an exam to get into the prestigious service academy itself.
But a wrestling injury ended his dream of becoming a Navy pilot. He dropped out of school.
He joined his parents in California in the ’60s and while there he met his first wife, whose father had been a reserve deputy in Orange County. Conversations with his father-in-law got him interested in police work and Carrison soon became a deputy sheriff.
While working, he earned an associate and bachelor’s degrees in police science.
“I’m proof you can overcome your past,” Carrison says. “I think many young people give up because they’ve made mistakes in the past. But that’s the biggest mistake they make. People want you to succeed but they want to see you make the effort.”
The late Roger Hoxmeier, Carrison’s former colleague at the Orange County sheriff’s department, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal eight years ago that Carrison made a name for himself by knocking down more doors and by body-slamming more wanted felons than anyone else on the force.
“He had an amazing energy,” he said. “It was dangerous work. We didn’t have a SWAT to help us then.”
While he was engaging in a steady diet of risky takedowns, his first marriage failed. He and second wife, Kathy, have been married for 43 years. They’ve had a boy and a girl together; Carrison had two girls from his previous marriage.
“I’ve never worried about him,” Kathy says. “I always thought he was prepared for whatever he did.”
The only thing Carrison says he wasn’t prepared for occurred while he was still a deputy sheriff.
“A rodeo came and I told some guys I’d do it,” he says of bull riding. “The guy before me got his head stomped and when I got on (the bull) I knew I made a mistake. When I was holding the rope, the bull jumped and nearly pulled off my arm before I got out of the chute. I fell off at 3½ seconds and the bull stomped my leg bad.”
The FBI, ignoring his bull-riding ability, noticed his work with fugitives and recruited him. His first duty station was Portland, Ore., then he moved to Los Angeles. Not only did he work bank robbery cases, he used his new pilot’s license to do surveillance flights for the bureau.
Carrison investigated the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, and the Black Panthers, work that has long earned the criticism of Las Vegas surgeon Dr. James Tate, a former UMC trauma surgeon who believes the FBI used tactics that were illegal, including wiretaps, microphone “bugs” and surreptitious mail openings.
Carrison makes no apologies for what he did.
“Any group that talks about the overthrow of the United States should be investigated hard,” he says.
LATE-BLOOMING MEDICAL STUDENT
After five years with the FBI, Carrison says he grew tired of the “bureaucracy” that kept him from chasing bad guys. So, he left to help his dad manage a string of auto parts stores in California.
“He thought it would bring him and his father closer, but the work wasn’t fulfilling. … He wanted to contribute to society more ,” Kathy Carrison says.
And then he suffered a scuba diving accident that left him paralyzed on his right side for a few days.
“That started a whole cascade of events,” Carrison says. “I got really depressed and really started to take stock of my life.”
While still working with his father, Carrison decided to take science courses with the thought of becoming a science teacher. But aptitude tests taken at UCLA showed he could become a doctor. And a college counselor said he shouldn’t let his age — he was then 43 — deter him.
Carrison’s wife told him to apply for medical school.
“I told him I just wanted him happy,” she says.
Although happy about the possible opportunity, Carrison found the application process sickening.
“I’d get letters back saying my age had nothing to do with the rejection. That told me it had everything to do with it. Why bring it up if it’s not a factor?”
The College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, Calif., accepted him. That acceptance gave him a sense of purpose that chased his depression away.
And his scuba diving accident made him realize he should specialize in emergency medicine.
“I realized people needed better care than what I got,” he says. “There were two decompression chambers within 26 miles of where my incident happened and I was sent to neither.”
Major sacrifices were made for Carrison to become the emergency doctor he wanted to be. Kathy Carrison and another woman started a housecleaning business.
“I bet I’ve got the only doctor’s wife who cleaned houses to put her husband through school,” he says. “I never would have made it without her.”
The Carrisons often had four people living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment as he went through medical school, interned in Flint, Mich., and did a residency in Chicago.
“If you want something bad enough, you do what you have to do,” he says.
MOVE TO LAS VEGAS
Overjoyed his skills were needed in the Las Vegas of the ’90s, he threw himself into his work. It wasn’t long before the doctor with a law enforcement background and a specialization in emergency medicine found outlets for his passions. There were plenty of openings for volunteers.
“He really wanted to become part of a community so he got involved in everything,” Kathy Carrison says.
With the police department, he started a tactical medical unit that accompanies the SWAT unit on missions. Undersheriff Jim Dixon not only remembers how Carrison hasn’t complained about missions that often take hours, he also recalls how Carrison kept after him to get a pacemaker when his heart slowed down.
“Finally, I decided to get the operation and who shows up on the morning when I’m having it but Carrison,” he says. “He had plenty of other things to do but he wanted to make sure I was comfortable.”
NASCAR driver Jeff Burton praises the readiness of Carrison’s medical team at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And speedway President Chris Powell says the doctor has enjoyed whipping around the oval himself on his motorcycle at speeds well exceeding 100 mph.
“I’m afraid he’s put down a few,” he says.
It’s not unusual for Carrison, whose heart has often beat too fast, to need emergency medical help himself. A doctor yells “clear” and paddles are used to shock his heart back into rhythm. He’s given anesthetic through an IV port beforehand so he doesn’t feel the pain.
Pete Carlo, a UMC physician’s assistant and former paramedic, remembers Carrison still had the IV port in one day while he was helping injured patients.
“I asked him why he had still had it in and he said: ‘I didn’t have time to get it out. Somebody has to take care of all these new patients.’ He’s one of a kind.”
Although Carrison has found it easy to motivate himself in medicine, he says his administrative work poses different challenges, particularly in motivating others to work as a team.
He says he still gets “sick to his stomach” when he recalls how UMC emergency staff didn’t help Roshunda Abney in 2010. She didn’t know she was pregnant and gave birth at home to a tiny baby who later died. Six employees were fired, triage policies were changed and Abney was awarded $225,000 in a court suit.
“Had the policies in place been followed the incident would not have occurred,” a disgusted Carrison says. “Let’s face it: If somebody doesn’t choose to follow the rules, the system will fail no matter what it is.”
The physician’s willingness to do the right thing, to take the heat if something in his organization goes wrong, has prompted Bob Fisher, the Nevada Broadcasters Association president who sat on the state’s Homeland Security Commission when Carrison was chairman, to suggest that Carrison run for political office.
But Carrison says he’s best at practicing medicine. Still, he frequently makes passionate political forays on medical issues, particularly mental illness.
When he implores the Legislature for resources to treat the mentally ill, he does so knowing that the treatment system is failing across the country. The UMC emergency room, for example, is frequently crowded with mental patients needing help.
“Last year in California when my sister was in emergency, they gave her drugs and sent her home when she should have been committed,” he says, his voice quavering. “Then she jumps off a bridge … a suicide.”
Carrison says he sometimes is troubled by what he says is a glacial pace of change for the better. But he is proud to have helped secure funding recently for an emergency medicine residency program that was developed through UMC and the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
“Most of the doctors trained in that program stay here,” he says.
Although many physicians thought he was asking for trouble, he agreed to direct the medical team for the Electric Daisy Carnival. The event draws more than 300,000 young people for three days of concerts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Carrison took the job despite much publicized drug use at the carnival in Los Angeles that left a 15-year-old dead in 2010, before the event moved to Las Vegas.
“I want the best emergency medical treatment available for young people,” he says. “Most of what we deal with are dehydration cases. Metro officers have done a great job keeping problems under control.”
(During the three years he’s worked the carnival, one concertgoer died running into traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard and another died when she fell out of a hotel room window miles from the event’s site.)
The idea that age will force Carrison to the sidelines anytime soon makes FBI agent Sean Houtrow, a longtime friend, laugh.
“I’ve known him before he was this distinguished looking guy with gray hair, when he was a guy who could just look at somebody and have them think he was going to pull their kidneys out through their nostrils,” says Houtrow, who now works international terrorism cases for the FBI. “He’s hard-core when it comes to living life. He’s the kind of guy who would charge a suspect to get his gun instead of shooting him. For him, life is always about the next adventure.”
Reporter Paul Harasim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.