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Ben Carson: Gifted Neurosurgeon

06 October 2010
Ben Carson in surgical scrubs (Courtesy Johns Hopkins Children’s Center)

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who pioneered pediatric brain surgery, takes a break in the operating room.

By Kenneth J. Cooper

This essay is excerpted from the Living Book Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African-American Achievement.

Ben Carson was “a ghetto kid from the streets of Detroit,” he writes in his autobiography, at a time when the United States was undergoing the crucible of the civil rights movement and making the tumultuous transition from a segregated society. That poor black kid who lived in dilapidated tenements and struggled early in school grew up to be Dr. Ben Carson, one of the world’s greatest neurosurgeons. He has mastered complicated, marathon operations, saving and enhancing the lives of thousands of children with his gifted hands.

After three decades at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, the virtuoso neurosurgeon can count on his fingers the number of bad outcomes from his delicate operations on the brains of children with neurological problems. Carson achieved major medical advances early in his career at the renowned teaching hospital. In 1985, he perfected the hemispherectomy, a procedure for removing half the brain of young children afflicted with chronic seizures without significantly impairing their development or functioning. Once considered too risky and harmful, hemispherectomies are now standard medical practice, and Carson has helped more than 100 children with such surgery. Two years after making that medical breakthrough, Carson led a 70-member surgical team that performed the first successful operation to separate conjoined twins who were joined at the head. The German twins survived an operation that lasted nearly a whole day.

The U.S. Library of Congress in 2001 named Carson one of 89 “Living Legends,” and in 2008 former President George W. Bush awarded Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows on civilians. Popular recognition has come with the television movie Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (2009), about his remarkable life and achievements.

A fervent Christian who reads the Bible every morning and prays with his patients, Carson is committed to helping others succeed. He has trimmed back his enormous surgical load to concentrate on training the next generation at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center, where he has directed the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery for a quarter century. He has written four books and gives many speeches, all intended to inspire the young to set high goals for themselves and to work hard to attain them. For two decades, he and his wife Lacena (“Candy”) have run a national charity, the Carson Scholar’s Fund, that provides college scholarships to outstanding community-minded students and funds reading rooms inside elementary schools that lack libraries. His goal is to help others follow a path to success similar to the one he took, applying the traditional virtues of discipline, hard work and faith.

Humble Beginnings

Benjamin Solomon Carson Sr. was born September 18, 1951, in Detroit, Michigan, the younger son of Robert and Sonya Carson. His father worked in a car factory in the auto-making center. As a nuclear family, the Carsons bought a home and prospered, at first.

“He had a good job at one of the factories,” Carson says of his father. “My mother was an extremely good manager of money and, in fact, she was able to take from the money that he earned, save and invest. They actually owned several properties in Detroit early on. He subsequently got into drugs and alcohol and messed everything up.”

Poverty followed the divorce. Sonya, who had only a third-grade education, and young sons Curtis and Ben moved in with relatives in Boston, Massachusetts. There they lived in dilapidated tenements infested with rats and roaches in tough neighborhoods beset with crime and violence. After two years, Sonya had saved enough money from her jobs as a domestic household worker to move the family back to Detroit. Though the family’s flat there was in a similar condition, at least Sonya was not dependent on relatives or government grants to the poor.

“She worked a lot,” her son recalls. “Sometimes we wouldn’t even see her the whole week. She would leave at 5 in the morning, and get back at 11 or midnight, going from one job to the next because she just was determined not to be one of those welfare-type moms.”

Her young sons, though, were not doing well in school. In the fifth grade, Carson remembers classmates calling him “the safety net” because “no one ever had to worry about getting the lowest score on a test as long as I was there.” Carson is thankful now that his mother was “very observant.” As she worked in the homes of wealthy white families, Sonya noticed their children spent after-school hours studying and reading while her boys were playing or watching television.

“So one day, after praying a lot, she came home and said: ‘That’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to start reading books. You’re going to turn this silly TV off. To make sure you’re reading, you’re going to give me book reports,’” Ben Carson recalls. “Of course, I thought that was ridiculous.”

Initially, the boys also balked at the other after-school activity their mother imposed, learning the multiplication tables. They resisted until she pointed out that if she — with a third-grade education — could learn the tables through 12, so could they. Her sons obeyed her commands to read two books a week borrowed from the public library, to write reports about each and to memorize the arithmetic.

Carson immersed himself in reading, which he credits for his academic turnaround. In particular, he cites the inspiring trajectory of Up From Slavery, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave but founded a university and advised two U.S. presidents. He found similar lessons about perseverance and the pursuit of excellence in the biblical story of Joseph. Enslaved and then unjustly imprisoned, Joseph ultimately became prime minister of ancient Egypt.

“I got to the point if I had five minutes, I was reading a book,” Carson says. “It didn’t matter where I was — waiting for the bus, on the bus, at the dinner table. My mother, who was always after us to read, would say: ‘Benjamin, put the book down and eat your food.’”

Developing Gifted Hands

Carson rose to the top of his eighth-grade class then graduated from high school with an academic record strong enough to get into Yale University. From his early teens, he had his mind set on becoming a doctor. His study habits, however, weren’t adequate for the Ivy League school in New Haven, Connecticut. As a freshman, he was in danger of failing a chemistry course required of pre-med students. He prayed for guidance. Miraculously, the night before the final exam he dreamed about chemistry problems written on a chalkboard. They turned out to be the questions on the test. He passed and afterward promised God he would cease his last-minute cramming.

Medical school at the University of Michigan was the next hurdle. Once again, intensive reading, as much as eight hours a day, got him through after faltering on the first set of comprehensive exams. He began his postgraduate training as a physician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and completed it at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital of Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre in Perth, Australia. He returned to Hopkins Children’s and, when the incumbent departed to take another job, became the chief of pediatric neurosurgery and, in fact, the sole surgeon on that staff at the time. He was 33.

Blessings of Gifted Hands

Carson’s promotion at a relatively young age came because of the considerable skill he demonstrated in the operating room. He credits meticulous preparation, extraordinary hand-eye coordination and an uncommon ability to envision a brain in three dimensions, even when parts of the organ are not visible. Carson performed his first hemispherectomy in 1985 on Maranda Francisco, then four, who lived in Denver, Colorado. It was successful. She and hundreds of subsequent patients manage without half their brains because, at a young age, the remaining cells are adaptable enough to take over the functions of the missing hemisphere.

Before long, parents from across the United States and abroad were delivering their severely impaired children into his caring hands. Among these were Theresa and Josef Binder, from Ulm, Germany. They brought their newborn twin boys, who were conjoined at the back of the head. The twins were successfully separated in 1987, after a complex and difficult 22-hour surgery by a team of surgeons led by Carson. It was the first surgery of its kind, and the twins survived. After that, Carson traveled overseas to help medical teams separate two sets of twins in South Africa and one in Singapore. The 2003 operation in Singapore on the Bijani sisters, 29-year-old Iranian law students, was one of Carson’s few surgical failures. Both died within a few hours.

It has been a long journey for Dr. Ben Carson, from impoverished ghettos to international acclaim. Beyond his own dedication and devoted mother Sonya, he credits unseen hands behind his own “gifted hands.” He is a Seventh-day Adventist, a Christian denomination that worships on Saturday instead of Sunday. He believes in miracles.

“Absolutely, without question. I’ve seen them way too many times,” Carson says. “I have a fervent belief in God. … I know myself, and I look at the kinds of cases I’ve been involved in — you know, I’m good, but I’m not that good. So I know that there is something behind me. A lot of times I just get these impressions about doing things, and where do they come from? I just know that there is something more than meets the eye.”

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, has been a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 30 years, at the Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis American and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as Knight Ridder. In 1984 he shared a Pulitzer Prize for "The Race Factor," a Boston Globe series. He has covered U.S. federal politics and social policies and was Delhi-based South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. He returned to the Boston Globe as national editor from 2001 to 2005, after which he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.ait.org.tw)

Ben Carson standing on gymnasium floor, talking to students and parents in bleachers (AP Images)

Ben Carson encourages students to follow their dreams at a New Mexico middle school.