Famed Surgeon Ben Carson on Overcoming Adversity

Dr. Ben Carson, professor and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, discusses how he overcame adversity to become a successful doctor, his recent battle with prostate cancer and his latest philanthropic work.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Dr. Ben Carson has many titles. World-renowned neurosurgeon, professor at Johns Hopkins University, philanthropist and self-made man. By his example and his Carson Scholars Fund, Dr. Carson has inspired a generation of troubled young people to stay in school, teaching them to channel their anger and adversity into academic excellence. No stranger to adversity, Dr. Carson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002. We started by talking about his health.

Dr. BEN CARSON: Well, actually I'm doing extremely well. There have been lots of rumors circulating from the very beginning that I was dying or was dead already. But, in fact, I'm completely healed of my prostate cancer. It was within one millimeter of breaking through, but we were able to catch it before it got through, and the nerves were spared, and I'm doing great.

GORDON: Doctor, this is almost fodder for urban legend, if you will, but tell us how you found out. Is it true, in fact, that you were in surgery and you literally found out by someone holding the phone to your ear?

Dr. CARSON: Yes. I wanted to know as soon as they had information. So I said, `Call me as soon as you know something.' And the next day I was operating and, you know, I got the call. And I had the nurse hold it up to my ear and I got the news. And, you know, I just sort of put that away in the back of my mind and finished the operation. But obviously, as I was driving home that night, it began to weigh on me.

GORDON: You mentioned the clock--the literal clock in the operating room, and you having to excuse yourself and you knew something was wrong there. How much has this caused you to look at life's clock differently?

Dr. CARSON: You know, I'm always astounded by the fact that people are willing, for instance, to go out and spend $300 on a baseball or football game, but, you know, they just about have a spasm if they have to do a $10 co-pay for their health, you know, without realizing that the most important thing that they could possibly have is quality time here on Earth. And they need to do everything they can to take care of it. And I now spend much more time thinking about `Am I going to get adequate exercise? Am I going to optimize the rest of my time? Am I going to have a quality life?'

GORDON: One of the things that is showing in your deeds is that you have turned your attention not only as an individual, but as a town crier, if you will, to effectively say to African-Americans, in particular, but to people in general that life is also about those who have had the opportunity to give to indeed do that: to give.

Dr. CARSON: There is no fulfillment in things whatsoever. And I think one of the reasons that depression reigns supreme amongst the rich and famous is some of them thought that maybe those things would bring them happiness. But what, in fact, does is having a cause, having a passion. And that's really what gives life's true meaning. And one of the real passions for me has been understanding as a neuroscientist that the human brain is capable of so much, and yet there's so many people who don't utilize it. For every one of those young people we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and lack of potential, that's one less person that we have to be afraid of or protect our families from; one less person we have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more taxpaying, productive member of society who may discover the cure for AIDS or cancer. There is no one that we can afford to throw away.

GORDON: And you are, as many of us already know, but for those who are not familiar with your history, you are a living example of just that. You grew up in poverty in Detroit, a single parent home. Your mom raised you and your brother.

Dr. CARSON: That's correct.

GORDON: You admit yourself to having a--as it has been written in softer terms--a strong temper, low self-esteem, poor grades, etc. And now, as you suggest, you are a living testament of what can happen.

Dr. CARSON: And, yes, I believe that that potential exists in virtually everyone. I was fortunate enough, you know, to have a mother who believed in me when everybody else was calling me dummy. And even though she...

GORDON: Literally.

Dr. CARSON: Literally. That was my nickname in class: Dummy. And she only had a third-grade education; worked two to three jobs at a time as a domestic because she didn't want to be on welfare. You know, she prayed and asked God to give her wisdom. What could she do to give her sons to understand the importance of academic achievement, because we were doing terribly in school. And she came up with the idea of turning off the TV and making us read books. So we had to read two books apiece from the Detroit public library and submit to her two written book reports each week, which she couldn't read. But, of course, we didn't know that. She would underline them, and make little check marks and say `Let's discuss this report.'

You know, it did incredible things for me because, you know, between the covers of those books you could be anybody, you could go anywhere, you could do anything. And it begins to broaden your horizons. And, you know, within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class. But that's one of the reasons that we've incorporated into our scholarship program reading rooms. We put in these special reading rooms in schools, get sponsors for them. They're very inviting places. And the fact of the matter is after a while they begin to discover that, you know, reading's not so bad after all. And you look at all the cumulative benefits. You learn how to spell. You learn grammar and syntax. And you learn to be creative because you have to take those sentences and make them into concepts in your mind.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit more about those philanthropic endeavors that you are involved with. The Carson Scholars Fund--you mentioned that briefly. It's a program that awards $1,000 scholarships to students in grades four through 12. And you are looking to push this nationwide. It is already in some states, correct?

Dr. CARSON: Right. We're in 11 states and the District of Columbia right now. But the concept came from, you know, me visiting schools and seeing all the trophies. All-state basketball, state wrestling, quarterback was the big man on campus. But, you know, kids who were the academic superstars, all they got was a pat on the head and a National Honor Society pin. And, you know, I was very aware of the international statistics in which our young people, you know, ranked right at the bottom internationally, particularly in science and math. And I said, `You know, this is not going to work very well for us going forward into the future.' So we had to change that model.

So we want to really start with the youngsters and change their concept of what's great and what's important. So we started giving out $1,000 scholarships, starting in the fourth grade, because that begins to be the time when children can really appreciate something like that. And I'll tell you, you give a fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grader a thousand bucks, they automatically become big man on campus, I guarantee you.

But, you know, the money goes into a trust fund, and they get a statement each year in terms of how much it's worth. The school gets a trophy every bit as impressive as any sports trophy you've ever seen. They get to wear a medal. They get to go to a banquet. They get local press attention, all kinds of stuff. And we put them on the same kind of the pedestal as the athletes. And what a difference it makes. You know, the kids start looking at them as someone who's important, and someone who's a hero, someone who has brought this attention to our school, as opposed to the local nerd. And many teachers have told us that the grade point average in their classrooms have gone up significantly over the next year when we have one of our scholars in their classroom.

GORDON: One of the things that I find most interesting about what you're trying to do is also challenging other African-Americans who have the means and wherewithal to get involved, if not with your group, with the idea of being charitable and understanding that that really does, as you suggest, pull not only our community up as an individual community, African-Americans within the United States, but the United States is bolstered as well.

Dr. CARSON: Absolutely. And we also need to change the definition in the African-American community of what's worthy of praise. You know, everybody knows about Janet Jackson, but who in the Africa-American community knows about Shirley Jackson, an African-American woman who is the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who was the first woman to be the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, first woman/African-American to get a PhD from MIT, is the president of the AAAS, the largest scientific society in the world. I mean, does anybody even know about her? Of course not. And would she ever be on the front of Jet or Ebony? Not unless she learns to shoot a 25-foot jump shot or rap. You know, we need to change those kinds of things if we want our young people to begin to identify with those kinds of careers, because we have young people who are incredibly smart, who can do anything. But they need to be channeled in those directions. They need to be thinking about those things, and not just being the next Michael Jackson or some rap singer.

GORDON: If that weren't enough, you and your wife have co-founded Angels of the OR. And that is a charity that provides grants to those who are in need of special medical care and who have inadequate health insurance. I don't know that people know how devastating that can be when the need is there and the financing nor the insurance is just not available.

Dr. CARSON: Absolutely. And, you know, there were so many cases years ago where I had the ability to just take care of somebody, whether they had insurance or not, if they had a difficult neurosurgical problem. And, you know, revenues were such that it could just be absorbed into, you know, the general funding. And now all the hospitals run on a shoestring budget, you know, for the most part. So, you know, we're trying to come up with another mechanism, because, you know, between the fact that there's so many people who don't have insurance, or the ones who do have it but it won't let them get taken care of, this is a solution by using an endowment and then using the interest off the endowment.

And I'm hopeful that it works well, because I'd like to go to Congress with the idea and say `Look, one-seventh of our economy is medically related. What if we were smart enough to take 10 percent of that and put it away into, you know, a national health endowment, and we did that for 15 years? We would be talking about a $3 trillion corpus. What could you do with the interest on that?' You could easily take care of the 45 million people who have no insurance. Do it for another 10 years, and now you're talking about what everybody really wants, and that is free health care. It won't really be free, but we'll just be using the interest. And we won't be throwing good money after bad money, and we'll take care of the aging population and all of that. If we were only smart enough to work into the future, why does everything have to be a crisis?

GORDON: Well, modesty aside, Ben Carson, I think as we go down the list of impressive African-Americans in this country, I think we all agree that you are on that list, and we greatly appreciate all of what you're doing, not only on a day-to-day basis, but also to bring this to the fore for others to get involved. And we thank you for your time.

Dr. CARSON: And I thank you very much.

GORDON: Dr. Ben Carson is a professor and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.

This is NPR News.

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