Ben Carson Biography (1951-)

Ben CarsonNeurosurgeon, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins . Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 2008. Benjamin Solomon Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 18, 1951. The second son on Sonya and Robert Solomon Carson, Ben grew up in the hardened climate of inner-city Detroit. Ben’s mother was raised in Tennessee in a very large family. She dropped out of school in the third grade. With not much hope or prospects in life, she married Baptist minister Robert Carson when she was 13, believing that he would change her life. The couple moved to Detroit, Michigan, and for a time, the marriage was a success. Carson showered his wife with gifts and attention. But over time, Robert Carson changed. Though benevolent, he could also be domineering and erratic. In time, Sonya felt it was best for her sons if she and Robert divorced.

Ben was eight and Curtis, Ben’s brother, was 10 when Sonya was left to raise the children on her own. The family was very poor, and to make ends meet Sonya sometimes took on two or three jobs at a time in order to provide for her boys. Most of the jobs she had were as a domestic servant. There were occasions when her boys wouldn’t see her for days at a time, because she would go to work at 5:00 AM and come home around 11:00 PM, going from one job to the next. She was frugal with the family’s finances, cleaning and patching clothes from the Goodwill in order to dress the boys. The family would also go to local farmers and offer to pick corn or other vegetables in exchange for a portion of the yield. She would then can the produce for the kids’ meals. Her actions, and the way she managed the family, proved to be a tremendous influence on Ben and Curtis.

Sonya also taught her boys that anything was possible. By his recollection many years later, had thoughts of a career in , though it was more of a fantasy many young children harbor as they grow up. Because his family was on medical assistance, they would have to wait for hours to be seen by one of the interns at the hospital. Ben would listen to the pulse of the hospital as doctors and nurses went about their routines. Occasionally, there’d be an emergency and he could hear in people’s voices and in their quick movements the pace and emotions rise to meet the challenge. He’d hear the PA system call for a “Dr. Jones” and fantasized that one day they’d be calling for a “Dr. Carson.”

Both Ben and his brother experienced difficulty in school. Ben fell to the bottom of his class, and became the object of ridicule by his classmates. He developed a violent and uncontrollable temper, and was known to attack other children at the slightest provocation. The poverty he lived in and the difficult times he experienced in school seem to exacerbate the anger and rage.

Determined to turn her sons around, Sonya limited their TV time to just a few select programs and refused to let them go outside to play until they’d finished their homework. She was criticized for this by her friends, who said her boys would grow up to hate her. But she was determined that her sons would have greater opportunities than she did. She required them to read two library books a week and give her written reports, even though with her poor education she could barely read them. She would take the papers and review them, scanning over the words and turning pages. Then she would place a checkmark at the top of the page showing her approval.

At first, Ben resented the strict regimen. While his friends were playing outside, he was stuck in the house, forced to read a book or do his homework. But after several weeks of his mother’s unrelenting position, he began to find enjoyment in reading. Being poor, there wasn’t much opportunity to go anywhere. But between the covers of a book he could go anyplace, be anybody, and do anything. Ben began to learn how to use his imagination and found it more enjoyable than watching television. This attraction to reading soon led to a strong desire to learn more. Carson read books on all types of subjects and found connections between them. He saw himself as the central character of what he was reading, even if it was a technical book or an encyclopedia. He read about people in laboratories, pouring chemicals into a beaker or flask, or discovering galaxies, or peering into a microscope. He began to see himself differently, different than the other kids in his neighborhood who only wanted to get out of school, get some nice clothes, and a nice car. He saw that he could become the scientist or physician he had dreamed about. Staying focused on this vision of his future helped him get through some of the more difficult times.

Within a year, Ben Carson was amazing his teachers and classmates with his improvement. The childrens’ books he read while he was confined to quarters now had relevancy in school. He was able to recall facts and examples from the books and relate them to what he was learning in school. In 5th grade, Ben astonished everyone by indentifying rock samples his teacher had brought to school. As he recalled several years later, he began to realize that he wasn’t stupid. Within a year he was at the top of his class, and the hunger for knowledge had taken hold of him. It wasn’t easy in the predominantly all-white school, though. After Ben received a certificate of achievement at the semester break, one of the school’s teachers berated the white students for letting a black student get ahead of them academically.

Despite his academic successes, Ben Carson still had a raging temper that translated into violent behavior. One time he tried to hit is mother with a hammer because she disagreed with his choice of clothes. Another time, he inflicted a major head injury on a classmate in a dispute over a locker. In a final incident, Ben nearly stabbed to death a friend after arguing over a choice of radio stations. The only thing that prevented a tragic occurrence was the knife blade broke on the friend’s belt buckle. Not knowing the extent of his friend’s injury, Ben ran home and locked himself in the bathroom with a Bible. Terrified by his own actions, he started praying, asking God to help him find a way to deal with his temper. He found salvation in the book of Proverbs in a passage that went, “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.”

Ben began to realize that much of his anger stemmed from putting himself in the center of everything. Anytime anything happened that was not to his liking, he internalized it and made it his problem. Once he took himself out of the equation, he could see that not everything was directed at him and that he wasn’t the only one with troubles. He began to see things from other points of view. He soon realized he could control his anger, rather than it controlling him. He realized his future depended on the choices he made and the degree of energy he put into his life. Seeing that living in the inner city was only temporary, Carson believed he had the full power to change his situation.

Ben also had several teachers along the way who expressed a strong interest in his success. After he demonstrated his proficient knowledge of rocks in his 5th grade class, his teacher asked Ben to come by the school’s lab after classes ended for the day. There Ben found squirrels to feed and a tarantula to observe. He discovered the wonders of using a microscope to study water specimens, and learned about paramecium and amoebas. Later, at Southwestern High School in inner-city Detroit, his science teachers recognized his intellectual abilities and mentored him. Other teachers helped him to stay focused when outside influences pulled him off course.

After Ben graduated with honors from high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a medical career. But because his mother was not financially well off, Carson had to work through most of his time in college. The automobile industry was facing a downturn in Detroit during the 1970s, making it tough to get a summer job. But Carson was determined to achieve his goals. He knocked on doors looking for summer work and usually, through persistence, was able to obtain one. From this work, and a scholarship, he attended Yale University and earned a B.A. degree in psychology.

After graduating from Yale in 1973, Carson enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, choosing to become a neurosurgeon rather than a psychologist. In 1975, he married Lacrena “Candy” Rustin whom he met at Yale. Carson earned his medical degree, and the young couple moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he became a resident at Johns Hopkins University in 1977. His excellent eye-hand coordination and three-dimensional reasoning skills made him a superior surgeon early on. By 1982, he was chief resident in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins.

In 1983, Carson received an important invitation. Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia, needed a neurosurgeon and invited Carson to take the position. Resistant at first to move so far away from home, he eventually accepted the offer. It proved to be an important one. Australia at the time was without enough doctors with highly sophisticated training in neurosurgery. Carson gained several years worth of experience in the year he was in Australia and honed his skills tremendously.

Carson returned to Johns Hopkins in 1984 and, by 1985, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at the young age of 33. In 1987, Carson attracted international attention by performing a surgery to separate two 7-month-old craniopagus twins from Germany. Patrick and Benjamin Binder were born joined at the head. Their parents contacted Carson, who went to Germany to consult with the parents and the boys’ doctors. Because the boys were joined at the back of the head, and because they had separate brains, he felt the operation could be performed successfully. On September 4, 1987, Carson and a team of 70 doctors, nurses, and support staff joined forces for what would be a 22-hour surgery. Part of the challenge in radical neurosurgery is to prevent severe bleeding and trauma to the patients. In this operation, Carson had applied a technique used in cardiac surgery called hypothermic arrest. The boys’ bodies were cooled down so the blood flowed slower and bleeding was less severe. This allowed the surgeons to perform the delicate task of untangling, dividing, and repairing shared blood vessels. Although the twins did have some brain damage, both survived the separation, making Carson’s surgery the first of its kind.

In 1994, Carson and his team went to South Africa to separate the Makwaeba twins. The operation was unsuccessful, as both girls died from complications of the surgery. Carson was devastated, but vowed to press on, as he knew such procedures could be successful. In 1997, Carson and team went to Zambia in South Central Africa to separate infant boys Luka and Joseph Banda. This operation was especially difficult because the boys were joined at the tops of their heads, making this the first time a surgery of this type had been performed. After a 28-hour operation, both boys survived and neither suffered brain damage.

Over time, Ben Carson’s operations began to gain media attention. At first, what people saw was the soft-spoken hospital spokesperson explaining the complicated procedures in simple terms. But in time, Carson’s own story became public—a troubled youth growing up in the inner-city to a poor family eventually finding success. Soon, Carson began traveling to schools, businesses, and hospitals across the country telling his story and imparting his philosophy of life. Out of this dedication to education and helping young people, Carson and his wife Candy founded the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994. The foundation grants scholarships to young students and promotes reading in the younger grades.

In 2003, Ben Carson faced what was perhaps his biggest challenge: separating adult conjoined twins. Ladan and Laleh Bijani were Iranian girls who were joined at the head. For 29 years, they had literally lived together in every conceivable way. Like normal twins, they shared experiences and outlooks, but as they got older and developed their own individual aspirations, they knew they could never lead independent lives unless they separated. As they told Carson at one point, “We would rather die than spend another day together.”

This type of medical procedure had never been attempted on conjoined adults because the outcome would almost certainly result in death. By this time, Carson had been conducting brain surgery for nearly 20 years and had performed several craniopagus separations. He tried to talk the two women out of the surgery, but after many discussions with them and consultations with many other doctors and surgeons, he agreed to proceed.

Ben Carson and a team of more than 100 surgeons, specialists, and assistants traveled to Singapore in Southeast Asia. On July 6, 2003, Carson and his team began the nearly 52-hour operation. They used a 3-D imaging technique that Carson had developed several years earlier during the Banda twins operation. The computerized images allowed the medical team to conduct a virtual surgery before the operation. During the operation, they followed digital reconstruction of the twins’ brain. A specially designed chair allowed the operation to be preformed while both sisters were in a sitting position.

Besides the girls age, the surgery revealed more difficulties because their brains not only shared a major blood vessel, but had fused together. The separation was completed at 1:30 pm on July 8. But it was soon apparent that the girls were in deep critical condition, having both lost a large volume of blood due to the complications of the surgery. At 2:30 PM, Ladan died on the operating table. Her sister, Laleh died a short time later at 4:00 PM. The loss was devastating to all, especially Carson, who found some solace in the fact that the girls’ bravery to pursue the operation had contributed to neurosurgery in ways that would live far beyond them.

In 2002, Carson was forced to cut back on his break-neck pace after developing prostate cancer. He took an active role in his own case, reviewing X-rays and consulting with the team of surgeons who operated on him. Carson fully recovered from the operation cancer-free. The brush with death caused him to adjust his life to spend more time with his wife and their three children, Murray, Benjamin, Jr., and Rhoeyce.

Carson still keeps a busy schedule, performing nearly 300 operations a year and speaking to various groups around the country. He has written three books include the autobiography Gifted Hands (1996). The other two works, The Big Picture (2000) and Think Big (2006) are about his personal philosophies on success, hard work, and faith in God. Because of his unflagging dedication to children and his many medical breakthroughs, Carson has received more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees and is a member of the Alpha Honor Medical Society, the Horatio Alger Society of Distinguished Americans and sits on the boards of numerous business and education boards.

In 2001, CNN and Time magazine named Ben Carson as one of the nation’s 20 foremost physicians and scientists. In that same year, the Library of Congress selected him as one of 89 “Living Legends.”In 2006, he received the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the NAACP. In February 2008, President Bush awarded Carson the Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. highest civilian honors. In 2009, actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. portrayed Carson in the TNN television production Gifted Hands.

5 Comments

  1. Tameisha

    February 24, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Dr. Ben Carson is my greatest role model, someday i will be a nurosurgeon and i want to help unfortunate people. it was great reading your books of motivation.

  2. Warren Sperry

    August 31, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Dr. Carson,
    On Friday Sept. 17 our school is having a Benjamin Carson Day. We will view the movie, write essays, and model our focus after you. We have modeled our Paris Scholars program after your scholarship program. It is very successful and I would like a specfic number to contact you. We would like to invite you to join us or recommend one of your books as an incentive prize. Autographed, of course. Please contact me via our website. WE are very EXCITED. Thanking you in advance for your consideration.

  3. POTIPHAR PEMPHO KATSONYA

    December 30, 2010 at 7:13 am

    Reading your books really transformed my mindset and have already seen the fruits of the inspiration i got and eager to see more in my chosen career – Development Economist

  4. Bosa

    February 15, 2011 at 2:06 am

    I am a Adventist and Dr. Carson’s books were introduced to me through the Literature Evangelism program at my church. I was moved and true that our young people have struggles, and that finding that one thing that you can do well and love it, you can never go wrong. My the good Lord continue to bless you Dr Carson and may you continue to do all the great things that your Lord God set you out to do. You did not come as a ‘dump student’ you came as a guider to us parents to persevere, and never give up on the ones that we think are less gifted. This book is both for parents and children.

  5. Yaw

    March 16, 2011 at 6:42 am

    I personally think GOD uses you to motivate me. I am a Ghanaian and though i might not be privileged to getting all the requisite equipments to help in my studies, i have promised myself to save as many children as i can and allow God to use me to give them a reason to live….you are my mentor SIR and may God grant you long life to also see the works of people like us who are constantly motivated by you.. THANK YOU.

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