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Story of Healing

by Dawn Brazell
Public Relations

Not many pediatric neurosurgeons with the trailblazing career that Benjamin Carson has had would admit to the stories in his past.

Not only does Carson admit it, he's happy to share it. His story was the subject of a memoir and a movie that premiered on TNT in 2009 titled, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story."

Dr. Ben CarsonDr. Benjamin Carson

Carson will be the speaker May 18 for MUSC's 183rd Commencement ceremony marking the milestone passage of this year's more than 750 graduates.

MUSC chief of staff Sabra Slaughter, Ph.D., said Carson was nominated by MUSC's Student Government Association to be the speaker. He met Carson in 1994 at a keynote address for about 1,000 aspiring health professionals from high schools throughout South Carolina that was sponsored by the S.C. Area Health Education Consortium.

"Dr. Carson delivered a riveting address recounting his journey from childhood in inner city Detroit to the position as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 33. The ideas captured in his speech were later elaborated in his books, "Gifted Hands" and "Think Big." I expect that his speech to MUSC graduates will be equally engaging."

Carson said he likes doing commencement addresses and enjoys seeing young people launching off to promising careers. His career highlights include the first and only successful separation of craniopagus (Siamese) twins in 1987 who were joined at the back of the head that took a 70-member surgical team, led by Carson, 22 hours to perform and the successful separation of type-2 vertical craniopagus twins in 1997 in South Africa. Despite such milestones,

Carson said his proudest accomplishment is the thousands of calls and letters he gets from people who thank him for sharing his story.

"The medicine is great, and I've been very grateful for the career that I've had, but I also recognize that a lot of people are affected – in terms of the quality of their lives – by the inspiration they derive."

Humble Roots
One message that comes through clear in Carson's talks is that no one has to be a victim. It's a lesson he learned from his mother, who was one of 24 children. She got married at age 13, and would later find her husband had another family. She only had a third-grade education but worked domestic jobs to raise him and his brother.

"She noticed that no one she knew who went on welfare ever seemed to come off of it, so she was determined she would work as long and hard as necessary. She never became a victim, and she never let us become victims. I think that's the best thing she ever did for us."

His mother laid the groundwork for his success.

Considered dumb in his elementary years, Carson rose to become a full professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he has directed pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center for more than 25 years.

One of the pivotal changing moments came for him when his mother began to require that he and his brother turn off the TV and read more. She made them write book reports, even though she couldn't read them.

"Reading was critical for me. It took me from inner city Detroit to the whole rest of the world."

The reading would pay off. In fifth grade, Carson recalls his science teacher holding up a rock. He asked if anyone knew what it was. Carson, who never answered questions in class, had gotten interested in geology through his reading and happened to know what it was.

"Everybody was shocked, and I explained how it was formed. Then I was shocked. I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm the only one who knows the answer and I'm supposed to be the dummy, and the reason I know the answers is because of reading.' From that point on, I read everything I could get my hands on."

Moving on
Within the space of a year and a half, Carson went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. However, he faced his own inner demons, battling a bad temper that led to him trying to stab another youngster at age 14.

"That was very traumatic for me because I realized my temper was out of control. I was trying to kill someone. I locked myself in the bathroom, and I just started praying. I said, 'Lord, you got to help me because I just can't control it.'"

There was a Bible in there, and he picked it up and turned to the book of Proverbs where he found all these verses about anger.

"It seemed there were all written about me. There also were these verses about fools, and it seemed they were written about me, too," he said.

Carson said he realized that what he had to do was step outside of the circle and understand that everything was not about him. He had to learn to look at life from other people's point of view. God took away his temper, he said.

"All of that happened during a three hour period. When I walked out of the bathroom, my temper was gone."

That cleared the way for Carson's natural talents to bloom, and he was able to pursue his dream of becoming a physician. In 2001, Carson was named by CNN and TIME Magazine as one of the nation's 20 foremost physicians and scientists. That same year, he was selected by the Library of Congress as one of 89 "Living Legends" on the occasion of its 200th anniversary.

Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, which is the highest civilian honor in the land.

Carson's advice to medical professionals is to resist the tendency to become isolated. He'd like to see doctors become involved more in community affairs. "We've withdrawn into our operating rooms and our clinics," he said.

"Medicine is tough stuff. You have to stay constantly on top of your game. Things are always changing and there is a lot of stress involved. If you allow it to, it can completely consume you."

Dr. Ben CarsonDr. Benjamin Carson's latest book published by Zondervan.

People have asked him how he juggles managing a scholar's fund, sitting on Fortune 500 boards, writing books and still run a practice. "I find that by being able to divert your attention to different things, it keeps you fresh. It keeps you from being burned out."

Carson, who has been married for more than 30 years to his wife, Candy, said all three of his sons are successful, though none chose medicine. "They all thought I worked too hard," he said, laughing.

He admits it can be trying to balance it all, but that it's critical for medical professionals to get their voices heard in the community.

"My big message is that you will have a significant sphere of influence. Be sure to use it in a positive way to be someone who encourages people rather than someone who tears people down. Be someone who knows how to discuss things with people even when you disagree without becoming mortal enemies. If we can do that, I think as a society we can make progress. There's no reason physicians should not be healers of society, as well as healers of patients."



Friday, May 18, 2012

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.