• Exploring American History

Dr. Benjamin Carson’s gifted hands help to produce miracles

The son of Robert Solomon and Sonya Carson, Benjamin Solomon Carson arrived in Detroit, Michigan on September 18, 1951, and grew up in the inner-city’s hardened climate.

Sonya was part of a very large family and dropped out of school in the third grade. At the age of 13, she married Robert Carson, a Baptist minister, who she felt could help change her life for the better. Carson moved his bride to Detroit and their marriage was a success, for a time. Eventually, Robert’s domineering personality proved to be more than Sonya was able to handle, and finally Sonya believed it would be better for herself and her two sons if they left Robert.

Life proved to be a cruel taskmaster for the young single mother, but she had an iron-willed constitution when it came to providing for her sons. Finding work as a domestic servant, Sonya normally went to work at 5:00 a.m. and returned home at 11:00 p.m., so the boys saw little of her. When she was not working, she would take the boys with her to the local farms, asking for the chance to pick produce in return for a portion of what they gathered as pay. Returning home, she would can the bounty for future meals. Sonya’s frugal ways would later prove to have a tremendous influence on both Ben and his brother Curtis. Sonya also influenced her young sons in another way. She taught them that anything was possible.

The family’s meager livelihood forced them to rely on medical assistance for the care they needed. This involved waits requiring long hours to be seen by the hospitals' interns. During the time they waited, Ben would hear pages for various doctors over the intercom. He would hear “Dr. Jones” called to Emergency, OR, ICU or any number of other locations within the hospital and fantasize about one day hearing “Dr. Carson” called out. Before this could happen, however, Ben had some major hurdles to clear.

School was not the easiest experience for the Carson brothers. Difficulty placed itself in the boys’ path and caused Ben to fall to the bottom of his class. This resulted in him being ridiculed by his classmates and developing an uncontrolled temper which, with the slightest provocation, would lash out at other kids. If that was not bad enough, the poverty which engulfed him added fuel to the fire. Thankfully the angry little boy had a mother who would not give up on him.

Mama Sonya was determined to turn her sons around and started by setting some strong rules they had to live by. These included allowing the boys just a small amount of TV time and forbidding them from playing outside until their homework was done – correctly. She also required them to read two books each week and write a report on each. Her neighbors criticized her for her strict rules, stating the boys would hate her when they grew up. Sonya was willing to take the risk for the sake of her sons.

Ben’s reaction to his mother’s strong standards was one of resentment in the beginning. As time passed, however, his attitude began to change. Given the fact the family had little money to spend outside the things required to keep body and soul together and sheltered, there was little to do anyway. Ben began to find an escape in the books Sonya forced him to read. He soon learned that between the covers of these books, he could do anything he wanted, be anyone he wanted and go anywhere he wanted. All he had to do was lose himself in the pages and allow his imagination to soar.

Before long, Ben was addicted. Television was now boring. The more he read, the more he learned. Eventually, he was reading all kinds of books – encyclopedias, technical manuals and anything else he could get his hands on. In doing so, he began to find connections between them. He also began to sense a difference in himself to the kids in the neighborhood. Their thoughts centered on obtaining a new car or fancy clothes. Ben, on the other hand, began to visualize himself as becoming a doctor or a scientist.

When Ben entered the 5th grade, his teachers and classmates began to wonder if this was the same Ben Carson they had known in the past. He was now a top-ranking student and shocked everyone by identifying a variety of rock samples his teacher showed the class.

While Ben was showing tremendous progress scholastically, his temper was still fully resident. On three different occasions, it reared its ugly head in such a way that had the event fully succeeded, it could have had a horrible outcome on the other person involved and ruined Ben’s life.

- Example #1 – Ben attempted to hit his mother with a hammer when she disagreed with his choice of clothes.

- Example #2 – Ben’s dispute with a classmate over a locker resulted in the classmate receiving a major head injury.

- Example #3 – A friend’s belt buckle prevented him from being stabbed to death by Ben as a result of an argument over a radio station.

Following the third event, Ben ran home, grabbed a Bible, locked himself in the bathroom and started to pray. He cried out to God for help with his temper and God answered Ben’s prayer by directing him to the book of Proverbs. Ben’s eyes soon fell on Proverbs 14:29 – It’s smart to be patient, and stupid to lose your temper (CEV). God opened the eyes of Ben’s understanding to show him he internalized too many insignificant things and in time, Ben was able to be in control of his anger rather than have his anger control him.

Numerous people in Ben’s spheres of influence now began to leave their mark on the young man’s life. After showing proficiency with rocks, his 5th-grade science teacher invited Ben to explore the lab after school. Here he was introduced to the wonders found through the lens of a microscope. The mentoring continued at Southwestern High School in inner-city Detroit. When outside forces made an effort to pull him off course, his teachers stepped in to keep their young protégé focused. As a result, Ben graduated from high school with honors and a strong desire to go on and become a doctor.

Mama Sonya did not have the means to put her son through college, so Ben was on his own to find the necessary funds. Knocking doors for summer work, he found a job and later a scholarship to Yale University. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology in 1973, the real work now began.

Carson returned to Michigan and enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine with his goal to become a neurosurgeon. He completed his medical degree and began his residency at Johns Hopkins University in 1977. Gifted with excellent eye-hand coordination, along with three-dimensional reasoning skills, his superior surgical abilities were quickly revealed. By 1982, Dr. Ben Carson was neurosurgery’s chief resident at Johns Hopkins.

The following year, Dr. Carson’s career received a concentrated boost when he was invited down-under by Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia. The hospital was in need of a neurosurgeon and extended the invitation to Dr. Carson to take the position. Moving that far from home did not sit too well with the young doctor at first; however, he finally decided to accept the invitation and it proved to be an opportunity that put his career on a steroid-laced fast track.

Due to the lack of sophistically trained neurosurgeons in Australia at the time, Dr. Carson gained in one year the experience which would normally require several years’ worth of study. As a result, at the age of 33, Dr. Carson was back at Johns Hopkins wearing the title, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Two years later, the international spotlight was focused on him when Dr. Carson performed the operation to separate 7-month-old German craniopagus twins. The surgery required 22 hours and a team of 70 doctors, nurses and support staff. The surgery was the first of its kind. The twins sustained some brain damage as a result of the separation, but both survived.

Dr. Carson performed his next operation on craniopagus twins in South Africa. In this case, both of the girls died and Dr. Carson was devastated, but vowed to press on. The third time was the charm when Dr. Carson separated infant boys in Zambia during 1997. This time both boys survived and neither sustained brain damage.

Other surgical innovations of Dr. Carson’s included the first intrauterine procedure which was performed to relieve pressure on the brain of a hydrocephalic fetal twin. In another operation, a hemispherectomy was performed on an infant suffering from uncontrollable seizures. Half of the infant’s brain was removed which stopped the seizures and the remaining half of the brain compensated for the missing hemisphere.

As Dr. Carson’s operations gain the attention of the media, his personal story came to light. The son of a single mother became a troubled youth in the inner-city of Detroit and was later transformed into a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Before long, Dr. Carson found himself an in-demand speaker invited to hospitals, schools and businesses around the country. This resulted in Dr. Carson and his wife, Candy, founding the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994. The fund provides scholarships to help students further their education and promotes reading in the early grades.

In 2003, Dr. Carson’s skill as a neurosurgeon was put to the severest test so far when he was asked to separate conjoined twins who were 29-year old Iranian adults. Even with 20-years experience doing brain surgery behind him, Dr. Carson’s reluctance at performing the surgery was strong. The twins prevailed upon him, however, and Dr. Carson agreed to proceed. This time the operation, which took place on July 6, 2003, required 52 hours and a team of 100+ specialists, surgeons and assistants. A 3-D imaging process Dr. Carson developed was utilized which produced computerized images that allowed the medical team to do a virtual ‘dry-run’ before the actual operation took place.

The young women, seated in a specially designed chair for the procedure, proved to be more of a challenge than Dr. Carson originally envisioned. The brains shared a major blood vessel and were fused together. The operation was completed at 1:30 p.m. on July 8th, with both girls in very critical condition. One died an hour after the operation and her sister died ninety minutes later. Though Dr. Carson, his staff and the girls’ family were devastated by the deaths, the girls’ bravery in insisting on the operation resulted in contributions to neurosurgery in a variety of manners that would bless the lives of others in the future.

In 2002, life threw a big stumbling block in Dr. Carson’s path when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Performing an active role in his own case, Dr. Carson recovered from the surgery cancer-free. This brush with death woke the gifted physician to the need to slow down and smell the roses; those roses being his wife and three children.

The recipient of more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees, Dr. Carson sits on numerous education and business boards. Time magazine named Dr. Carson one of the nation’s 20 foremost scientists and physicians in 2001 and the Library of Congress named him one of 89 “Living Legends.” The NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 2006, their highest honor. President George W. Bush presented Dr. Carson the Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian awards, in 2008.

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There is no such thing as an average human being. If you have a normal brain, you are superior.

Dr. Benjamin S. Carson

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