Dr. Ben Carson

From Inner-City Kid
to Neurosurgeon:
Dr. Ben Carson

by Martha Nelson

In 1987 a team of 70 medical professionals at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore attempted the separation of Siamese twins Patrick and Benjamin Binder. The 5-month-old babies from Germany were joined at the back of the head -- and this type of separation had never succeeded without the death of at least one of the twins. During 22 hours of surgery the medical team accomplished what they had rehearsed many times before taking on the complicated case -- but not without a few surprises enroute. However, one of the most surprising notes about this incident may be that the leading neurosurgeon who had devised the plan for the operation was a ghetto kid from the streets of Detroit.

Ben Carson (now Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions) tells the story in his autobiography: "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story." It is a testimony of faith and perseverance which conquered everything negative thrown at young Ben from the day he was born.

Early Years in Detroit

"Your daddy isn't going to live with us anymore." These are hard words for any 8 year old to hear. But Ben's mother was determined that he and his 10 year old brother Curtis would not be influenced by a father who was continually unfaithful to the marriage. Sonya Carson had been a poor black girl of 13 -- with 23 siblings — when she had married her 28 year old husband to escape a difficult home situation. With little education, and now as a single parent in Detroit, she worked several domestic cleaning jobs to make ends meet. Ben's mother could barely read herself, but was determined that her two boys would have a good education. Ben Carson says, "My mother, Sonya Carson, was the earliest, strongest, and most impacting force in my life."2 She also had a strong faith in God that carried the family through many difficult years, including her own bouts with mental illness and depression caused by the divorce.

"You Weren't Born to be a Failure"

Ben and Curtis attended a predominantly white school in the Detroit ghetto -- and faced racial discrimination at many turns. Some of the teachers didn't expect Ben and his brother to succeed -- let alone become "college material." It would have been easy for any child in this situation, with a mother working fulltime, to let schoolwork slide. And Ben Carson was at the very bottom of his 5th grade class. But Sonya Carson was determined that her boys would be the best they could be, and go on to college. She often said, "You weren't born to be a failure, Bennie. You can do it!"

To the boys' dismay, she announced one day that they would only be allowed to watch three television programs a week, and would read two books from the library every week, which they would have to report back to her. She also insisted that Ben memorize his times tables after school before he went out to play (he got D's in math) -- and quizzed him on these when she got home from her long day at work. His grades slowly improved -- and eventually he was at the top of his math class. Such dedication and love from a mother who had only had a third grade education herself, but wanted more for her children.

Turning Point

From the age of 8, Ben wanted to be a doctor -- and at 10 became interested in Johns Hopkins Medical School. As a child he had given his life to God at a church meeting and wanted to help others -- and as the boy matured he came to understand more what Christianity was about. Yet Ben had always struggled with a bad temper, and an anger that could become violent. A turning point came at age 14 when his anger toward a friend nearly resulted in the friend's death. Afterwards Ben was so shaken by the power of that uncontrollable anger that he begged God to free him from this destructive personality trait. "Sharp mental pictures of other temper fits filled my mind. I saw my anger, clenched my fists against my rage. I wouldn't be any good for anything if I couldn't change. My poor mother, I thought. She believes in me. Not even she knows how bad I am." 2 His mother had taught him that if he asked God for help, God would give it. And so Ben gave his life anew to Jesus, and the anger that used to control him no longer had that control. Today Ben Carson says that he is still free from that uncontrollable anger -- and knows that if God had not helped him that day he would have ended up in prison.

On to Yale

Throughout highschool Ben read everything he could about psychology, medicine and science -- and also developed interests in classical music and art. He joined the ROTC — learning discipline and how to lead others. In 1969 he graduated as third in his highschool class, and went on to claim an academic scholarship at Yale University. He admits that by then all the attention was going to his head. "After a week on campus I discovered I wasn't that bright, " Ben recalled. "Yale was a great leveler for me, because I now studied, worked, and lived with dozens of high-achieving students, and I didn't stand out among them."3 However, Ben continued to work hard and graduated from Yale to go on to medical school at the University of Michigan. Along the way he met Candy Rustin, who would eventually become his wife.

Gifted Hands

Ben was intrigued by the field of neurosurgery -- and discovered something else about himself. "I became acutely aware of an unusual ability -- a divine gift, I believe -- of extraordinary eye and hand coordination. It's my belief that God gives us all gifts, special abilities that we have the privilege of developing to help us serve Him and humanity. And the gift of eye and hand coordination has been an invaluable asset in surgery. This gift goes beyond eye-hand coordination, encompassing the ability to understand physical relationships, to think in three dimensions. Good surgeons must understand the consequences of each action, for they're often not able to see what's happening on the other side of the area in which they're actually working... During my studies at medical school and the years afterward I realized the value of this skill. For me it is the most significant talent God has given me and the reason people sometimes say I have gifted hands."4

What followed were challenging years of learning and pioneering new techniques in neurosurgery. Ben attempted many difficult procedures in brain surgery that others wouldn't risk -- especially on children -- and saved or improved many lives. But the success story doesn't end there.

A Dream

Ben and Candy Carson share a dream -- for a national scholarship fund to be set up for young people who have academic talent but no money. "As my life moves forward, I want to see thousands of deserving people of every race moving into leadership because of their talents and commitments, " Ben said. 5 To this end he commits time to speaking engagements and encouraging young people to be the best they can be. His life is an example of how one person's gift from a loving God can help humanity and change lives. It's an example of the miracle of those natural gifts that we could never buy -- but which we've each been uniquely given to give back to the world around us.

1. "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story" by Ben Carson, (Review and Herald, 1990), p. 14
2. Ibid., p. 55
3. Ibid., p. 70
4. Ibid., p. 98-99
5. Ibid., p. 216

Return to Table of Contents