Famed Surgeon's Journey Marked with Hardship, Honor Benjamin Carson grew up in an inner-city, single parent home, and struggled in school. As a man, he rose to become a ground-breaking neurosurgeon, touching people's lives with his healing skills and his power to inspire. Carson talks about his life, career, and his newest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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Famed Surgeon's Journey Marked with Hardship, Honor

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Famed Surgeon's Journey Marked with Hardship, Honor

Famed Surgeon's Journey Marked with Hardship, Honor

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment I have a thought or two about Michelle Obama. But first it's time for Wisdom Watch. From time to time we like to visit with those who we think can give us important perspective on today's most pressing issues, people who aren't just smart, but wise.

Today, he grew up in inner-city Detroit, the son of a woman with a third-grade education. He was such a poor student in school, his nickname was dummy. And yet he became one of the most acclaimed surgeons in the world, known for performing some of the most complicated, exacting surgeries known to humankind. He is an author, a teacher, and he has just collected a new honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. He is Dr. Benjamin Carson, the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. And he is with us now. Dr. Carson, welcome and congratulations.

Dr. BENJAMIN CARSON (Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, Medal of Freedom Laureate): Yeah, it was wonderful occasion, thank you very much.

MARTIN: What were you doing when you found out that you'd been awarded the Medal of Freedom?

Dr. CARSON: I was actually in Indianapolis. We were getting ready for the Colts' celebrity ball. We have a little thing with the Indianapolis Colts each year, and they raise money for the Carson Scholars Fund, and you know that is used to create scholarships in the Indianapolis school system.

MARTIN: I know, but what were you doing when you - did you get a phone call, were you sitting down?

Dr. CARSON: Oh, yeah. I had just checked into the hotel and got a phone call from the White House. I said wow, is this a mistake? Is it me you really want?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well you've gotten a few rewards in your day. What does this one mean to you?

Dr. CARSON: I don't think it really has even fully sunk in now. But when I go back and I look at the list of previous awardees, you know obviously I'm not sure I belong in that company, but it's very humbling. And it's particularly, you know, gratifying to know that someone is actually recognizing some of the extreme efforts that we put, not only into trying to provide the best patient care possible, but also the efforts trying to improve the minds of our young people and potentially the future of our nation.

MARTIN: Given that you are now such an admired professional, I think a lot of people who don't know your story might be surprised by your background, which I just alluded to just briefly. You know, you and your brother raised by a single mom with a third-grade education whom you later learned was illiterate, you didn't know that growing up. What do you think she taught you that helped you become the man you are today?

Dr. CARSON: Well, I think the major thing my mother taught us was not to be a victim. You know, she, you know was one of 24 children, got married at age 13 and discovered her husband was a bigamist, had only a third-grade education. But she decided that with all that going against her, she could still carve out a future for her and for us. You know, she refused to go on welfare, because she said she never saw anybody go on welfare who came off of it. And she always gave us examples of maintaining control. I remember when my brother was in junior high and they said he's going to go on a vocational track. And she went down there and tore that place apart, and said no, he's college prep, I'm sorry. And she was not going to accept that, you know? And that's the kind of person she was.

MARTIN: In your latest book, "Take the Risk," you talk about, among many things, what it's like to be in situations where people's lives are in your hands. And you have to make a judgment about whether - or they have to make a judgment, and you have to make a judgment about whether you should go forward. It's obviously, you wrote a whole book about it...

Dr. CARSON: Yes.

MARTIN: It's a very rich and complicated subject. But can you talk a little bit about what it takes to navigate those situations, particularly things that those of us who don't perform life-saving surgeries can think about as we address those issues?

Dr. CARSON: Well, one thing that probably most people don't know is that neurosurgeons, in general, die about ten years earlier than the rest of the population. And a lot of that is stress related. Because you're dealing, you know, with life and death situations all the time, people's functions. And you have to make split-second decisions sometimes. And, you know, if you're wrong the patient might die or have a neurologic injury or just horrible things can happen to you. And that takes a toll on people, there's no question about it.

But one of the things that I've learned to do, first of all is, you know, do your homework. Make sure you understand what's going on, talk to people and let them participate in the decision-making process, that's very important. Ask God to give me wisdom. And ask some basic questions like, you know, what's the best thing that happens if I do this, what's the worst thing that happens if I do it, what's the best thing that happens if I don't do it, what's the worst thing that happens if I don't do it, and, you know, making sure you understand the answers to those questions, making sure that the patient understands it so that everybody goes into the situation with their eyes open.

MARTIN: Why did you want to write your latest book about risk? What gave you the idea?

Dr. CARSON: Well, I've been thinking about risk for a long time, but the thing that really gave me the idea was the case of the Bijani twins a few years ago, you know, 29-year-old women, very intelligent. You know, their dream was to be separated and they were both lawyers, you know, so they had a very good sense of the risks that were involved. And they knew that there was no better than a 50-50 chance of living, but they said something to me that really impressed me.

They said, doctor, we would rather die than spend another day together, and I began thinking about their situation because I was sort of aghast when they said that, but then I thought about, you know, those people who were confined to a prison camp for life, and sometimes the incredible risk they take to their lives, to escape. Well, you know, these were young women who were basically confined to a prison camp because they could not live their lives and they were very intelligent. And I started analyzing in terms of the way they looked at risk and how it's all relative and how it becomes so important for us to understand first of all what our value system is because if we don't know what our value system is then we don't know what risks to take. Your answer to lots of questions changes if, you know, your value is, you know, fame and glory and money versus uplifting mankind.

MARTIN: But the twins did die.

Dr. CARSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did their deaths, which you write about very movingly in the book, I must say, did that change your thinking at all about the subject when you lost both of them?

Dr. CARSON: Obviously, you know, when they were lost that was a tremendous disappointment for all of us. It wasn't totally unexpected, but, you know, the key thing about everything is learning, you know, with every tragic situation and with every triumphant situation, one must take something away from that, and if you always learn then you're always making progress. You know, you won't be one of those people who's always late because they never learned that if you leave 15 minutes earlier, you can get there on time. I think people can train themselves to learn from bad situations and those are the people who go on to do great things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and our guest for our Wisdom Watch Conversation is Dr. Benjamin Carson. His latest honor is the Medal of Freedom. You mentioned that one of the things that you do in assessing risk is you also ask God for guidance, and this is intriguing because I think some people consider it a conflict to be a person of faith and a person of science both. You talk very openly about your faith, particularly in this book, and you talk about the challenge of integrating your faith with your profession which some consider antithetical. So could you tell us a little bit about how your beliefs play out in your professional life? How do you go about integrating those two?

Dr. CARSON: Well, you know, I consider myself a very logical person. I like to look at everything and I like to find what's consistent with each, what's inconsistent. And as I look at for instance the creation of our universe and I hear some of the hard theoretical physicists saying, you know, if I have enough explosions over a long enough period of time, everything will come into perfect order like it is. Well, you know, that strains my credulity quite frankly, and I just say so what you're telling me is if I blow a hurricane through a junkyard enough times, a perfectly formed 747 will come out eventually, ready to fly. I just have to do it long enough and enough times, and yeah, they say well, yeah, theoretically that's true. Well, it takes more faith than I have to believe that. It just does.

And that's the case with many other things and yet, you know, I look at the willingness of people to jump into a river to try to save somebody they don't even know and all kinds of things that people do for each other that would make no sense if there were not some internal switch that said something about who we are and morality and the kinds of things that could only derive, you know, from a superior being or creator. You know, those things would not derive from a bunch of promiscuous biochemicals getting together in a slime pool and making themselves into a creature.

MARTIN: You make that sound so appealing. You've talked a lot about healthcare as a moral issue. A lot of people see it as a policy issue. What do you see as the moral imperative with healthcare?

Dr. CARSON: Well, first of all, recognize that the most important thing that anybody has is their health. And all you have to do is, you know, walk into the wards of, you know a famous hospital like Hopkins or Duke or Mass. General, and you'll see all these very rich people, very powerful people, dying of horrible diseases, and every single one of them will give every penny and every title for a clean bill of health.

You begin to realize what you have and, you know, to be in a situation where we have the resources to insure that people have good health, and yet, not to provide it, I think it does become a bit of a moral issue. Recognizing that we have the will to do it, we spend more per capital on health care than any other nation in the world, and yet we rank number 37. So what we don't haveā€¦

MARTIN: You mean number 37 in terms of the overall quality of our nation's health and the population's health.

Dr. CARSON: Yeah. Correct. So what we don't have the will to do is to recognize that we're doing it incorrectly and to overhaul the system. You know, if it's broke, fix it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, but it is broke, and you know, it doesn't do any good to say, well, we're going to have universal health care and we're going to put everybody into this broken system. It would make much more sense to say let's really analyze the system and let's fix it, and by doing so the cost is going to drop dramatically. And with a little bit of logic we can cover everybody and they can have fantastic care and everybody can be happy. It can be done.

MARTIN: is there a candidate making sense to you on this issue?

Dr. CARSON: No.

MARTIN: No? None.

Dr. CARSON: None. None of them.

MARTIN: Not one?

Dr. CARSON: Not a single one and I'm very sad to have to say that. I hope that, you know, as the campaign goes on, one or both of them will begin to look more seriously, you know, stop looking for, you know, little political sound bites, and, you know, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You know, there are things that we can look at that work, and what we have to do is ask ourselves how do we, you know, apply that on massive scale, you know, why can't we go to, you know, electronic billing and collection? That would be such an easy thing to do, 300 billion dollars a year right there just by doing that one simple thing. We can do it and it doesn't do any good to just say this is not politics as usual, but then to continue politics as usual. We really need some real thinking on this.

MARTIN: One issue that has gotten a lot of attention and conversation in this presidential election year for obvious reasons is the subject of race. You don't talk a lot about race. You don't shy away from it, but you don't necessarily talk about it either, and I just wondered is there anything - do you have any interesting thoughts as a result of the dynamic that's resulted from Barack Obama's candidacy that you want to share?

Dr. CARSON: Well, I can tell you the reason that I don't talk a lot about race may have to do with the fact that I'm a neurosurgeon. You know, when I open that scalp and take off that bone and I'm working on that brain, I realize that that is the thing that makes the person who they are, not the covering . The covering is relatively irrelevant. It is that brain that is what gives us our personality, what gives us our intellect, and what makes us the human being that we are, and the sooner we get away from concentrating on the wrapping and deal with the present inside, the better off we're going to be as a society.

MARTIN: Well, I understand you have to go into surgery soon. What's on your dance card today?

Dr. CARSON: Today I have a little kid from Arizona with a very complex spinal cord tethering. I have a retired military person with trigeminal neuralgia, and I have a baby who has compression of the brain stem.

MARTIN: OK. Not busy at all I see. So well, thank you for spending a couple of minutes with us. Go save somebody if you would.

Dr. CARSON: All right. My pleasure. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Dr. Benjamin Carson joined us from his office at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congratulations once again.

Dr. CARSON: Thank you.

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