Gabriel Carrillo III JD/MD ’23
Law and medicine are among the most rigorous graduate courses of study. Few students set out to earn both professional degrees and fewer still undertake the programs concurrently. But Gabe Carrillo, a veteran who already holds a master’s from Duke, decided long ago to embark on the six-year journey.
Raised in Angier, N.C., Carrillo laid the groundwork for a career in medicine over more than eight years in the U.S. Navy, first as a hospital corpsman serving with the U.S. Marines and then as a cardiac device specialist stationed at the nation’s flagship military medical center. He added law to his career plan when he saw firsthand how the legal system can directly influence patient care.
While stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Carrillo had his first encounter with the arduous task of hospital management and says he was hooked thereafter. He recalls watching staff attorneys discuss the legal issues facing hospital administrators and saw how the effective delivery of medical services involves far more than scientific expertise and a commitment to patient care.
“I realized that medicine can be the sword in the fight against disease,” he says. “But I also learned that the law could serve as the shield that drives health care in a new direction — a direction I hope to influence someday.”
Carrillo is now in his fifth year of medical studies at the Duke University School of Medicine and in his third year at Duke Law, where he has gained legal clinical skills through the Health Justice Clinic, Children’s Law Clinic, and summer internships, and where he currently serves as president of the Duke Law Veterans Society. He has long been involved with Duke’s Professional Student Veterans Council and engages with students across several graduate programs.
He has overlapped his medical and legal training by furthering a partnership between the Health Justice Clinic and Duke’s Obstetrics and Gynecology department aimed at training doctors and staff on pregnancy discrimination and employment laws relevant to clinical practice. Upon completing both degrees in 2023, Carrillo plans to attend residency in emergency medicine — something he says was born out of his clinical experiences in Afghanistan.
Carrillo describes his dream job as combining the practice of medicine, public health policy, and legal training in a way that emphasizes the development of future technologies related to artificial intelligence, machine learning, cybersecurity, and pandemic preparedness. His deep history with Duke has also inspired his desire to help manage hospitals’ interactions with government agencies and he hopes to serve alongside innovators at academic institutions in his home state.
Carrillo traces his interest in healing others to his mother’s nurturing spirit, having admired the way she cared for his seven siblings and the plants that filled their home.
Knowing early on that medicine was his calling but finding college out of reach financially even with a partial scholarship, Carrillo instead decided to take the “scenic route,” and joined the Navy, where he was quickly trained in operational emergency medicine and direct patient care. Enlisting also satisfied his inclination to follow in the footsteps of his late father, a Cuban immigrant who served two tours with the U.S. Army during Vietnam and his maternal grandfather, who served in the Coast Guard during World War II.
“There are many ways people can make a difference if they will only push hard — especially when times are tough,” he says. “I’ve learned that if you have the guts to jump feet first, the grit to see it through, and willingness to serve something larger than yourself, then you can really influence positive change.”
Carrillo’s naval service included deployments to Afghanistan and training in cardiovascular technology at the Naval School of Health Sciences where he graduated second in his class. Following his honorable discharge, he attended N.C. State University on the Post 911 GI Bill, completing a Bachelor of Science in human biology with a minor in neurotoxicology, conducting research into the effects of lead toxicity on child brain development, and graduating magna cum laude. He cemented his interest in clinical research while pursuing his master’s in biomedical science at Duke, one of the few institutions where he could pursue concurrent legal and medical degrees.
Still engaged with veterans’ health issues at Duke, Carrillo helped organize fellow medical students to administer thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to veterans at the Durham VA Medical Center last spring and summer. He says the VA hospitals offer important lessons for public health infrastructure and deliver effective treatments and services to millions, often at affordable prices.
“Unlike Medicare, the VA can negotiate drug prices, which is one major reason why VA health care costs are often lower,” he says, adding that he also respects and appreciates the health system’s patient-centered focus. “When a veteran walks in to be seen at the VA, we don’t ask ‘What can you afford?’ We ask, ‘How can we help serve you the way you served us?’ It is a very different mentality.”
Carrillo furthered his interest in patient care with enrollment in Duke’s Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship (LIC) program during his second year of medical school.
“The LIC program teaches medical students to value the connectedness with our patients the same way they may value the complexities of disease,” he says. “It’s important that we students learn to treat the person and not just the illness. The LIC program really focuses on that key aspect.”
Having immersed himself in a wide range of courses and clinics at the Law School related to health law and policy, Carrillo is hoping to someday help change the way medicine is delivered.
“There’s an opportunity to better understand how we can influence medicine through law, but also at the same time, influence the law through medicine,” he says. “For me, interviewing patients in the exam room is very similar to interviewing clients. It’s a dynamic process, and the overlap is remarkable. That said, policymakers with real-world understanding of clinical practice could have a profound impact on the drafting of future laws. Many aspects of today’s health care system struggle to provide equity and fair access for the most basic health care needs. Unfortunately, much of this is rooted in legislative misunderstandings about what goes on in clinical practice.”
Noting that only a small fraction of published clinical research findings — derived at prohibitive cost — are directly applicable to clinical practice, Carrillo says he aims to make the research enterprise become more practical in design.
“Gabe’s perseverance, passion for improving society, and love of evidence-based reasoning are all qualities to which any future lawyer or doctor should aspire,” says Arti Rai, the Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law, an expert on health and administrative law, intellectual property, and innovation.
Carrillo brought a “unique toolkit” of insights drawn from his training in medicine as well as law to his work in the Health Justice Clinic, where students serve the needs of low-income clients facing debilitating illnesses, according to Clinical Professor Allison Rice, the clinic’s director. “It was invaluable in unravelling complicated medical-legal issues in our cases,” she says. “Gabe not only used those tools in his own casework, he also generously consulted on other students’ cases, helping them put together sophisticated legal theories to the benefit of our clients.”
Adds Clinical Professor Hannah Demeritt ’04, the clinic’s supervising attorney: “Gabe is also incredibly dedicated to serving underserved communities, and this is apparent in so much of the work he does.”
In addition to navigating two challenging graduate programs, Carrillo is raising two small children with his wife, a registered nurse who is also completing a degree program.
“Having a family keeps you motivated and challenges you to become more efficient in your daily calculus,” he says. “You learn how to manage your time effectively and balance competing priorities — the key is organization. I live and die by my calendar and little black date book.”