Relies on Faith When Taking Risks
Ben Carson’s new book, life story, capture national exposure.
BY KIM LAWTON, Managing Editor/Correspondent, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Public Broadcasting Service
r. Ben Carson knows a lot about risk. As one of the leading pediatric neurosurgeons in the world, Carson makes life and death decisions nearly every day. And he has gained international fame for his work separating twins joined at their heads.
He believes risk can be a good thing, but that most Americans are obsessed with security. "A lot of people simply don't realize their potential because they are so risk-averse," he said in an interview with Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "They just don't want to take the risk."
Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, said when he makes his own risk assessments, he seeks guidance from God.
GIFTED HANDS: Dr. Ben Carson is one of the world's most respected neurosurgeons and a devout Seventh-day Adventist. Carson, 56, said he prays for guidance before every surgery. [Photo courtesy Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly/RNS]
"I pray before I go into the operating room for every case and I ask him to give me wisdom, to help me to know what to do. And not only for operating, but for everything," said Carson, 56.
Faith and risk have defined Carson's life, both personally and professionally. He directs pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, and in addition to his work with conjoined twins, he has pioneered surgical techniques to stop seizures.
Not bad for a kid from inner-city Detroit whom many would have written off.
"I was definitely an at-risk kid growing up," he said. "My parents got divorced early on. My mother only had a third grade education, was illiterate, worked as a domestic, two or three jobs at a time because she didn't want to be on welfare."
Early on, Carson did badly at school.
"I was considered the dummy in the classroom when I was in 5th grade, and I just didn't believe that I could do the work so I engaged myself in creating disturbances," he said.
His mother, Sonya Carson, prayed for wisdom on how to help her two sons. She demanded they write two book reports a week for her. She didn't know how to read, but would highlight and checkmark the reports and discuss them with her sons.
"It only took about a month maybe before I started to enjoy the reading. Something happened. I got to the point where I couldn't wait to come home and read my books," he said.
Even as he began to see a future for himself, Carson said, he faced another challenge -- his temper. When he was 14, he tried to stab a friend but the knife blade hit the boy's belt buckle.
"It dawned upon me at that moment I was trying to kill somebody over nothing," Carson said.
Carson said he prayed for God's help and picked up a Bible, which opened to the Book of Proverbs and verses about anger. He believes God took his away temper and enabled him to become a surgeon. He still reads from Proverbs every day.
MAN OF PRAYER: Dr. Carson, in foreground, prays during a worship service at Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.
[Photo courtesy Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly/RNS]
"My strong belief is that God created human beings and therefore he knows about every aspect of the human body," Carson said. "So, if I want to fix it, I just need to be in harmony with him."
For Carson, surgery is often a spiritual experience.
"When I look at the human brain I'm still in awe of it," he said. "Every single time you lift off the bone and open the dura and there it is -- the human brain."
And he made a surprising admission for a surgeon. "I don't particularly like cutting the brain. It's such a beautiful thing, why cut it," he said with a laugh. "And I'm not even sure I like surgery. But I like what it does."
Carson has had many high-profile cases. In his new book, "Take the Risk," (Zondervan) he describes one of the toughest. In 2003, he was asked to be part of the team trying to separate 29-year-old Iranian twins whose skulls were fused together. The surgery had a less than 50 percent chance of success. Carson said he was reluctant to get involved with the case, but then he met the twins. They told him, "Doctor, we would rather die than spend another day together."
"It became very clear ... that they were going to go through with the operation whether I helped or not," Carson said. "So at that point, I started thinking, there's not a very good chance of success here, so I'd better go and help because if they die, I am going to wonder for the rest of my life if it could have turned out differently if I would have helped."
Despite his help, after more than 50 hours of surgery, the twins died.
"I always say if God didn't allow bad things to happen, we would already be in heaven. And we are not there. That's where faith and trust come in." Carson has also tried to have an impact outside the operating room. In 2004, he was appointed to the President's Council on Bioethics. He has also become a vocal advocate for health insurance reform.
"I see the insurance issue ... as a huge moral issue," he said. "The richest country in the world, to have 47 million people without health insurance is ridiculous."
He acknowledged that one big danger for neurosurgeons can be developing a “god complex.”
"You are going into these incredibly delicate places that control who people are, and you've got to have a fair ego to think you can do that," Carson said. "But for me personally, I realize where it all comes from," he added. "All the good things come from God. I can't really claim any of them."
— © 2008, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly; distributed by Religion News Service
[Take The Risk is Dr. Carson’s fourth book; his previous volumes include Gifted Hands, Think Big and The Big Picture. Carson, his wife Candy, their three sons - Murray, B.J., and Rhoeyce - and Carson's mother Sonja live together in Maryland. He also heads up the Carson Scholars Fund, and is a frequent speaker around the world.]