Lives of Power

Benjamin Carson

At the age of 33 Benjamin Carson became the youngest pediatric neurosurgeon in Johns Hopkins Medical School. He is a profoundly world recognized surgeon. He made great fame and a great name for himself when he performed his first successful operation separating Siamese twins.
In this interview, he shares with us his story of from being the dumbest kid in the class, to the top of the class and the world-renowned neurosurgeon.

RHS: Dr. Robert H. Schuller
BC : Benjamin Carson

I want to say that I count some of the greatest doctors in the world as friends of mine. There is no doctor that matches in my mind, in my estimation, Dr. Benjamin Carson. It was my honor to nominate him to election to the Horatio Alger Association a year ago. At the age of 33 he became the youngest pediatric neurosurgeon in Johns Hopkins Medical School. He is a profoundly world recognized surgeon. He made great fame and a great name for himself when he performed his first successful operation separating Siamese twins. Dr. Carson, please tell us how did you go from being the dumbest kid in the class, and you were at the bottom of the class, to the top of the class and the world-renowned neurosurgeon.

Well, you know the key thing there was I thought I was very stupid so I acted like a stupid person. And I achieved like a stupid person, but it was my mother who had only a third grade education and really not much in the way of resources, worked very hard as a domestic two or three jobs at a time. And realized that I was going no where fast and she prayed and she asked God to give her the wisdom to know what to do to help not only me, but my brother to achieve academically.

And God gave her the wisdom, at least in her opinion. My brother and I didn't think it was that wise, but it was to turn off the TV set. Let us watch only two or three TV programs during the week and with all that spare time, read two books a piece from the Detroit Public Library and submit to her written book reports. We didn't know that she couldn't read so, and she would take the reports and she would put little check marks on them and act like she was reading them, but interestingly enough and the real crux of the matter is, we had to do it. She was not a person who allowed us to have our own way. And a lot of parents now they say, "How was your mother able to get you to turn off the TV and to read books. I can't get my kids to do that. I can't get them to turn off the Nintendo," what have you, and I just have to chuckle and I say, "Well back in those days, the parents were in charge, so they didn't have to ask permission."

But because I was reading all the time I was putting those letters together into words, so I learned how to spell. All of a sudden I wasn't the first one to sit down in a spelling bee. I had to take those words and put them together into sentences so I learned grammar and syntax. Learned to express myself. Had to take those sentences and make them into concepts so I learned to use my imagination. So within the space of a year and a half I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.

The same kids would come to me and say, "Hey, Bennie, how do you work this problem?" And I'd say, "Sit at my feet youngster while I instruct you." I was ... I was perhaps a little obnoxious, but the key thing ... the key thing was at that point I thought of myself as being smart. And I think that's really the key.

You know the good Lord has given us these tremendous brains. You know the human brain is able to take in 2 million bits of information in a second and retain all of that. I mean the processing capability of a human brain is beyond anything that man can put together. And once you begin to tune into that, to tap into that, then you begin to do what I always say and that's "Do your best, and let God do the rest."

I remember once reading or hearing you say, maybe it was in one of your books, you wrote the book, "Think Big." Powerful book, but I remember you were still considered the "dummy" in class, but the class didn't know that you were now having to read two books a week. And you read ... happened to read a book that introduced you to something and the teacher asked a question ... Would you tell us that's an amazing story?

Well, I initially started reading books about animals because I loved animals. After I exhausted all the animal books in the Detroit Public Libraries, I went to plants and then I went to rocks, because we lived in a dilapidated section of the city near the railroad tracks and of course, what is there along the railroad tracks ... rocks.

So I would collect rocks, bring them home, get my geology book out and study the rocks. Still in the 5th grade. Still the "dummy" in the class. And I could ... I got to the point where I could name virtually any rock, tell you where it came from, how it was formed. And the 5th grade science teacher walked in one day held up this big, black, shiny rock and he says, "Can anybody tell me what this is?"

Well keep in mind I never raised my hand for anything. So you know I waited for one of the smart kids to raise their hand. None of them did. So I waited for one of the dumb kids to raise their hand. None of them did. And I said, "This is my big chance." And up went my hand. And everybody turned around and they looked and they said, "Look, Carson's got his hand up." They couldn't believe it.

And the teacher was so amazed and he called on me. And he said, "Benjamin." I said, "Mr. Jake, that's obsidian." And there was silence in the room, because it sounded good. And, you know, no one knew whether they should be impressed or laughing or what. And finally he said, "That's right it is obsidian." And I said, "You know obsidian is formed after a volcanic eruption and the lava flows down and it hits the water. There's a super cooling process. The air's forced out. The surface glazes over."

Everybody was staring at me, you know. They couldn't believe all this geological information spewing forth from the mouth of the dummy, but you know, that was the ... that was the episode that was sort of a watershed for me. It helped me to realize that I really wasn't a dummy at all. And I said the reason you knew those answers is because you were reading those books. I said, what if you read books about all your subjects? Can you imagine what would happen? And I began reading, after a while, you always saw me with a book. And I went from being called "dummy" to being called "book worm."

Wow. Medically speaking, are our human minds capable of allowing us to make changes in our thinking and in our behavior?


You were going to be a psychiatrist. You majored in psychology, am I right? And then you switched from psychiatry to what you're into today. Why did you make that switch?

Well interestingly enough you know I wanted to be a psychiatrist for the wrong reasons. Because you know growing up in poverty initially I wanted to be a missionary doctor and I said, "I'm not going to do well as a missionary doctor," because I didn't want to be poor for the rest of my life. So I said I wanted to be a psychiatrist because at least on television they all drove Jaguars, had big plush offices. And fancy houses, and all they did is talk to crazy people all day. And I said ... I said well, you know, I'm doing that anyway. So ... so why not make some money.

But you know I majored in psychology and advanced psyche, but then I started meeting a bunch of psychiatrists. But I discovered very quickly that they don't actually do in reality, what they do on television. Actually the things they do are much more interesting. But it wasn't what I wanted to do.

So I stopped and I assessed my gifts and talents and discovered that what I was really good at was things that involve tremendous eye-hand coordination. The ability to think in three dimensions. You know I was a very careful person. Never knocked things over and said, "Oops" and I loved to dissect things. When I was a child if there was a little animal or bug or something around, I always knew what was inside.

So, you know, I put all that together and I said, "You know you would be a terrific neurosurgeon." And that's how I actually made that choice. But you know the use of the knowledge that I gained as a psychology major has been very useful to me. And I clearly believe that people have the ability to change their thought processes. Unlike many people say that everything is formulated by the time you're 3 or 4, whatever, years of age. Absolutely untrue because humans, unlike animals, have the ability to take information from the past, the present, the future to integrate that and to formulate a plan. And they have the ability to allow that to affect their behaviors and that's why people can change at any point in time. It's a matter of choice.

We have that because of these tremendous frontal lobes that God gave us that can engage in rational thought processing. We do not have to be victims of circumstances as animals do. And I think that that is the very reason that, you know, that our Lord and Savior made it very clear that people can change. We do not have to be the same because of circumstances that occurred. We're only victims if we choose to be victims.

How did you come by such a strong faith in God? You really have a strong personal faith in God. And here you are one of the worlds leading scientists. How did you come to this faith?

Well, actually my faith derived from an incident that happened when I was a teenager. I had a violent temper. And, for instance, once somebody hit me with a pebble, I was incensed and I picked up a large rock, hurled it at their face, broke their glasses, almost put their eye out.

Someone was trying to close my locker once. I didn't want it closed, I struck them in the forehead with my fist, happened to have the lock still in my hand. Put a three-inch gash in his forehead.

My mother wanted me to wear something once; I didn't want to wear it. Took a hammer, tried to hit her in the head with it. Fortunately my brother caught it from behind while I was coming down with it. You know, other than that I was a pretty good kid. But ... but at one point, you know, a teenager angered me. I had a large knife, I tried to stab him in the abdomen and fortunately he had on a large metal belt buckle. And the knife blade struck it with such force that it broke. And he fled in terror.

But I was more terrified and I locked myself in the bathroom, started thinking about that and I was in San Quentin a few years ago as a speaker. And looking out over those hardened faces and you know, I recognized that but for the grace of God I could easily have been in a place like that.

But, while I was in that bathroom, I contemplated my life. I fell on my knees, I said, "Lord, I can't control this temper. Only You can do this." And I started reading from the Book of Proverbs, which is, you know, has many verses in it about the problems that people get into with temper. How God admires people who can control their temper.

And after three hours of reading, contemplating, praying, I emerged from that bathroom, the temper was gone, and I've never had another problem with it since that day. And I realized at that point that God was more than a nebulas figure that ministers spoke about from the pulpit, that He was somebody you could invite into your life, and that it could have a miraculous power of change. And I adopted Him that day, not only as my Heavenly Father, but as my Earthly Father. Somebody who could work with you hand in hand. And the power that it presents you with is absolutely unmatched by anything else.

That's fantastic. I want to hold those hands. These ten fingers were the key hands to separate Siamese twins whose bodies were joined at the head. The name again.

Those were the Binder twins.

Binder twins. How many people were on your operating staff that you headed?

We had 70 members on the active staff. Although I should mention to you that I had an opportunity to go to South Africa. There was a set of Siamese twins or crania-peges from Zambia. They were joined at the top of the head. Type 2 vertical, one facing one direction, one facing the other direction.

There had been 23 attempts previously to separate twins of that nature. Very complex vascular interjoinings. And at the Medical University of South Africa, at Madunsa, which is the only black medical school in South Africa, we undertook to do the separation. Fortunately I had the ability to use a virtual reality workbench before embarking on that operation with the goggles and everything actually to study the anatomy very carefully before going over to South Africa. We had a team there of about 50 or 60.

And I'll tell you what was really very interesting. We started that operation with prayer. We had a massive prayer meeting. There were signs over the operating room that said, "God bless Luka and Joseph Banda" was their name, and the night before that operation I prayed and I asked God to show me something different because the outcomes of the previous 23 had not really been that satisfactory.

And what has always been advocated is that you give the abnormal sinus between them to one. You choose which one to give it to, and you disconnect the other one sequentially from that. Well what I was impressed to do after looking at that sinus, noticing that the middle of the sinus seemed a little less wide than the other ends, said, "What if we cut that sinus right in the middle? Is it possible that maybe the flow from the cortex of each of the individuals would then reverse and flow in the appropriate direction?"

And I discussed that with the medical team from South Africa, and there was also a neurosurgeon from Zambia. And we operated for 28 hours. We played Handel's Messiah throughout the operation. And at the end of that 28 hours, one of those twins popped his eyes open. Actually tried to pull his tube out. The other one by the time we got to the recovery area was doing the same thing. The very next day they were both extubated. The day after that they were beginning to eat and within two weeks they were both crawling, having never been able to move before. And there's absolutely no sign of any neurological impairment, and that's the first time that's happened.

But ... but I'll tell you what's the most exciting thing about that for me. Not doing that operation, but seeing the effect that it had on the people there. They were literally dancing in the street. The self-esteem went through the roof. You know, before it was always Johannesburg and Capetown, which were doing the great medical things. And now they were able to do that. So you can imagine what that did for their esteem. But also, the spirit that existed in inviting God to be the Primary Surgeon. Everybody was on board and doing that. And I have never felt the presence of God more deeply in any operation than I did in that particular one. And I think that that is really the key to success. God created the body. He understands it better than any of us do. And with all of our scientific knowledge and all of our professorial titles. You know some people they get a lot of letters behind their name and they try to re-arrange them to make them spell "God," it doesn't work that way.

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