Kam Picks the Brain of the World-Renowned Neurosurgeon
Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr. had a childhood dream of becoming a physician. Growing up in a single parent home with dire poverty, poor grades, a horrible temper, and low self-esteem appeared to preclude the realization of that dream.
But, today, he is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, a position he has held since 1984 at age 33. He operates on more than 300 children every year at Johns Hopkins, plus he is sought out around the world for his expertise in separating conjoined twins and conducting brain surgery to control seizures.
A recipient of countless awards and honors, the author of three popular books, and the co-founder, with his wife, Candy, of a non-profit organization to help hard-working youth fund a college education, he enjoys a deeply satisfying life rich in accomplishments. Success has taken Dr. Carson far from his humble roots in the inner cities of Detroit and Boston, and he credits his mother and a host of individuals who expected the very best from him.
Now, thanks to corporate sponsor Johnson & Johnson, his autobiography, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, has been adapted into a movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. Here, he talks about his extraordinary life and this inspirational bio-pic which debuts on TNT on Saturday, February 7th at 8 PM (ET/PT).
KW: Hi, Dr. Carson, I’m honored to have this opportunity.
BC: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
KW: I understand that you needed to move this interview up because you have an operation at the time we originally scheduled it for.
BC: That’s correct.
KW: How do you typically prepare for an operation?
BC: I see the patient and their parents, and I spend time thinking about what their disease process is, and whether or not we can, in fact, make it better, because that’s incredibly important. A good surgeon doesn’t just concentrate on technical ability, but also on the appropriateness of what you’re doing. I always tell the residents [doctors in training] “A great operation on the wrong patient is just as bad as a horrible operation on the right patient.” So, you have to have all that together.
KW: How does it feel to have a film made about your life?
BC: Well, I’ve already had documentaries made about me before, and there’s even a very popular play about my life that’s been running here in Maryland for the past 13 or 14 years. But a movie does take it to a different level, particularly when it is so extremely well done. My major hope is that the message of the movie will be seen by millions and millions of young people who might begin to recognize that they actually play a very major role in what happens to them in terms of the decisions that they make, regardless of the environment that they’re growing up in.
KW: This makes me think of the question Lester Chisholm had for you, namely, what can parents do to vaccinate their children against failure?
BC: For one thing, it’s very important not to allow your child to adopt the victim’s mentality. I think that was the most important thing that my mother did for us. And, if anybody could have felt like a victim, it was she. She was one of 24 children. She was raised in horrible conditions in rural Tennessee. She got married at the age of 13 to try to escape that environment. After moving to Detroit she discovered that her husband was a bigamist. Then, with only a third grade education, she had to raise two young sons on her own. She could have very easily felt like a victim. But she never did. Instead, she would always say, “I can do something about this.” She ended up working three jobs as a domestic, because she didn’t want to be on welfare. She wanted to control her own destiny and ours. And she never allowed us to be victims. She always told us that if anybody can do something, you can do it, too, except that you can do it better.
KW: Still, there must be something very exceptional about you to transcend such humble beginnings to become one of the world’s leading brain surgeons.
BC: I think that one of the keys for me was that, early on, I developed the big picture. When I was in the 5th grade, my mother turned off the TV and told us we had to go the library regularly, borrow two books apiece and submit written book reports to her. I started reading a lot at that point, first about animals, plants and rocks, then about people. And I read a book about Booker T. Washington called Up from Slavery. It talked about how it had been illegal for slaves to learn how to read. Yet he taught himself to read, and he read every book he could get his hands on. And he became an advisor to presidents.
I was very impressed by that story, and by the story of Joseph in the Bible, because he was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Did he cry about his lot? No, he eventually winds up the prime minister of Egypt. What that says to me is that it doesn’t really matter where you are, you can make something out of any situation. And it really helps you once you develop that sort of mindset. Even after I became a physician and the director of pediatric neurosurgery at the #1 hospital, there were still people saying, “You can’t do that” and “Oh, no one’s done that.” Thankfully, I had long since developed a mindset that I didn’t get discouraged by such negativity.
KW: In these days when religion seems so often at odds with science, Creationism versus Evolution, etcetera, how is that you have both a strong faith and a strong belief in medicine?
BC: Well, for me, the faith makes the science real. You see, the more I learn about the human body, our environment, and the universe, the more it increases my faith. Because when I look at the complexity, of not just our solar system, but of the entire universe, and then someone comes along and claims, “Oh, there was just a Big Bang,” I think that theory requires a lot more faith than I have. Recognizing the complexities of the electromagnetic forces that keep things aligned, that’s like saying I could blow a hurricane through a junkyard and have a fully formed 747 jet materialize, all ready to fly. And that would be considerably simpler feat than creating our universe.
That’s just craziness. So, when I look at the complexity of the human brain, and someone suggests that, “Well, if you give it billions of years to evolve through natural selection, that’s what would happen.” They say that if something isn’t useful, it disappears. How does that work? How does something that isn’t useful attach itself to something else that isn’t useful, and then those two non-useful things sit around for a couple billion years waiting for a third useful thing to come along. And they keep waiting for thousands and thousands of other useful things to come along. That doesn’t make any sense.
That’s craziness! [Laughs] I look at science very, very logically. And when I look at it logically, I realize that things of that level of complexity don’t just happen.
KW: How do you balance the demands of family and career, when you’re performing operations all over the globe?
BC: When the kids were young, I made it a rule that I didn’t go anywhere unless they paid for my whole family to come along. So, the kids got to travel all over the world. My mother would always come with us, too. The six of us were all over the place all the time. I remember one period of time when, for three straight months, we were gone every weekend. I always reserved a lot of quality time for the family, which makes a huge difference. Now that the kids are grown, my wife still accompanies me everywhere, and it’s wonderful.
KW: How did you come to appear in the film Stuck on You, a comedy about a pair of Siamese twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear?
BC: [Laughs] When they first asked me to do it, I said, “These are adults and they’re attached at the liver. But I’m a pediatric neurosurgeon.” They said, “That’s okay.” I agreed on the condition that the script wasn’t too outrageous and that they would do the premiere in Baltimore, so we could use it as a fundraiser for the Carson Scholarship Fund. We raised about $500,000, so it turned out to be an extraordinarily wonderful thing for us.
KW: Did you have to sleep or take a rest when you performed that 28-hour operation in South Africa separating the twins joined at the head?
BC: No, it’s interesting, when your adrenaline is flowing, time goes by very fast.
KW: But didn’t you get sleepy?
BC: It’s like being in a jungle with a hungry tiger. [Chuckles] You’re probably not going to get sleepy until you get out of there. But when you do get out of there you’re incredibly tired, and will drop like a rock.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
BC: Extraordinarily so.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
BC: I guess I could be afraid, certainly if I were in a dark alley and I heard something growling. [LOL] That would probably frighten me. But am I afraid from day to day? No.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
BC: Other than the Bible, a book called The Desire of Ages by Ellen White.
KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
BC: Probably, but I don’t know what it is. [Laughs heartily]
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to?
BC: I traditionally listen to Classical music, but I still like Motown.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
BC: My mother, because she gave her life to make sure we got a head start.
KW: How’s your brother Curtis, doing?
BC: He’s doing great. He’s a mechanical and aeronautical engineer down in Atlanta, Georgia.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
BC: I’d like to be remembered as someone who got others to recognize the potential that was within them.
KW: That’s beautiful. Well, Dr. Carson, let me again say thanks for giving me this opportunity to speak with you, especially given just how precious your time is, since you’re performing life-saving operations on a daily basis.
BC: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
To see a trailer for Gifted Hands,