Dr. Ben Carson is interviewed by Dianemarie Collins and Erika Frantzve for the launch of the Wake Up America Network.
Ben Carson overcame his troubled youth in inner-city Detroit to become a neurosurgeon famous for successfully separating conjoined twins. In 2015, he became one of many candidates seeking to gain the official Republican presidential nomination.
“…I also came to realize that if people could make me angry they could control me. Why should I give someone else such power over my life?”
Ben Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 18, 1951. His mother, though under-educated herself, pushed her sons to read and to believe in themselves. Carson went from being a poor student to receiving academic honors and eventually attending medical school. As a doctor, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 33 and earned fame for his groundbreaking work separating conjoined twins. In 2015 he announced that he was running for the following year’s presidential election, hoping to gain the Republican nomination. He is one of the party’s leading candidates in the polls.
Carson graduated with honors from Southwestern, having also become a senior commander in the school’s ROTC program. He earned a full scholarship to Yale, receiving a B.A. degree in psychology in 1973.
Carson enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, choosing to become a neurosurgeon rather than a therapist. In 1975, he married Lacena “Candy” Rustin, whom he met at Yale. Carson earned his medical degree, and the young couple moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he became an intern 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 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 lacking doctors with highly sophisticated training in neurosurgery. Carson gained several years worth of experience in the year he was at Gairdner Hospital and honed his skills tremendously.
Carson returned to Johns Hopkins in 1984 and, by 1985, he became director of pediatric neurosurgery at the age of 33, at the time, the youngest U.S. physician to hold such a position. In 1987, Carson attracted international attention by performing a surgery to separate 7-month-old occipital craniopagus twins in Germany. Patrick and Benjamin Binder were born joined at the head. Their parents contacted Carson, who went to Germany to consult with the family 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, after months of rehearsals, Carson and a huge team of doctors, nurses and support staff joined forces for what would be a 22-hour procedure. Part of the challenge in radical neurosurgery is to prevent severe bleeding and trauma to the patients. In the highly complex operation, Carson had applied both hypothermic and circulatory arrest. Although the twins did suffer some brain damage and post-operation bleeding, both survived the separation, allowing Carson’s surgery to be considered by the medical establishment the first successful procedure of its kind.
Separating Conjoined Twins
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 his 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, facing in opposite directions, making it the first time a surgery of this type had been performed. After a 28-hour operation, that was supported by previously rendered 3-D mapping, 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 surgeon explaining 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 founded the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994. The foundation grants scholarships to students and promotes reading in the younger grades.
Biggest Medical Challenge
In 2003, Ben Carson faced what was perhaps his biggest challenge: separating adult conjoined twins. Ladan and Laleh Bijani were Iranian women 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, including earning law degrees, 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 of the dangerous outcomes. By this time, Carson had been conducting brain surgery for nearly 20 years and had performed several craniopagus separations. He later stated 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.
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 again relied on a 3-D imaging technique that Carson had utilized to prepare for the Banda twins’ operation. The computerized images allowed the medical team to conduct a virtual surgery before the operation. During the procedure, they followed digital reconstructions of the twins’ brains.
The surgery revealed more difficulties outside of the girls’ ages; their brains not only shared a major vein but had fused together. The separation was completed during the afternoon on July 8. But it was soon apparent that the girls were in deep critical condition.
At 2:30 p.m., Ladan died on the operating table. Her sister Laleh died a short time later. The loss was devastating to all, especially Carson, who stated that the the girls’ bravery to pursue the operation had contributed to neurosurgery in ways that would live far beyond them.
Because of his unflagging dedication to children and his many medical breakthroughs, Carson has received a legion of honorary doctorate degrees and accolades, and has sat on the boards of numerous business and education boards.
Accolades and Books
In 2002, Carson was forced to cut back on his breakneck 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.
After his recovery, Carson still kept a busy schedule, conducting operations and speaking to various groups around the country. He has also written several books, including the popular autobiography Gifted Hands (1990). Other titles include—Think Big (1992), The Big Picture (1999), and Take the Risk (2007)—are about his personal philosophies on learning, success, hard work and religious faith.
In 2000, the Library of Congress selected Carson as one of its “Living Legends.” The following year, CNN and Time magazine named Carson as one of the nation’s 20 foremost physicians and scientists. In 2006, he received the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the NAACP. In February 2008, President George W. Bush awarded Carson the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2009, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Carson in the TNT television production Gifted Hands.
In recent years, Carson has focused more on politics than practicing medicine and eventually become known as an outspoken conservative Republican. In 2012, he published America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great. In February 2013, Carson attracted a lot of attention for his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He criticized President Barack Obama for his positions on taxation and healthcare. The following month he announced that he was officially retiring from his career as a surgeon. That October, he was hired by Fox News in October 2013 to work as a contributor. Then in May 2014, Carson published his No. 1 New York Times bestseller One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future. [Read our interview with Ben Carson.]
On May 4, 2015, Carson launched his official bid for the Republican presidential nomination at an event in Detroit. “I’m not a politician,” Carson said. “I don’t want to be a politician because politicians do what is politically expedient. I want to do what’s right.” With a crowded field of contenders, Carson was one of the ten top candidates who participated in a Fox News presidential debate in early August.
Over the ensuing months, Carson has risen through the ranks to become a leading contender among the nominees according to preliminary polls against outspoken rival Donald Trump and seen as a favorite among evangelicals. (Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist.) In October he also released another book, A More Perfect Union.
Since Carson began his presidential campaign, several news sources have questioned statements he’s made about his background in Gifted Hands. Having asserted in the book that he was granted a full scholarship for admission to West Point, news magazine Politico reported that Carson had never applied to the military academy, which his team confirmed. There have also been questions concerning the accuracy of his statements about being a violent youngster, with CNN conducting an investigation into Carson’s school days and life in his old neighborhood.
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