In times like these — with all of the ugly political discord and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy — a visit to Canton to hear Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr., famed director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, was good medicine for me and some 2,500 others.
Carson proved to be the very wise choice to be the keynote speaker Thursday at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Stark & Carroll Counties’ 25th anniversary celebration at First Christian Church. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan School of Medicine, he grew up poor, overcame a troubled youth and went from being a very poor student to an honor student.
At the age of 33 he rose to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins and received international notice after separating conjoined twins. He’s also author of five books: Gifted Hands, Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence, Take the Risk, The Big Picture and his latest America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great.
At the urging of a board member, Beth Lechner, executive director of the Habitat chapter, watched the movie version of Gifted Hands, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. “And oh my. I think if every mother could be Sonya Carson the world would be a much better place,” Lechner said.
A couple of days later, she happened to catch a TV news segment on Carson, and decided to move heaven and earth to get him to be the speaker at the anniversary celebration. She considered him emblematic of Habitat for Humanity’s mission: caring about your neighbor.
The 61-year-old Carson and his wife, Candy, are certainly doing that with their Carson Scholars program, which rewards excellence with scholarships and reading room programs sprinkled around the nation. “We want to put academics on the same pedestal as athletics,” he said.
Proof of its success is that teachers have told him that when they get a Carson Scholar in the classroom, the whole class’s GPA improves.
The great thing about having Carson as a mentor is that he lived what he’s talking about.
He said in his speech to the group that he always wanted to be a contestant on television’s GE College Bowl. He had to know not just science and math, which by then he had mastered pretty well, but also art, literature and classical music. So he set to it, visiting the Detroit Institute of Art to learn about every picture there, listening to Mozart — “not easy for a black kid in Motown.”
By the time he was a well-polished high school senior with scholarship offers, entertaining which college he would choose, Carson said he decided he would apply to the one that won that year’s College Bowl. “Yale,” he delighted in saying, “demolished Harvard that year. But that was the year College Bowl went off the air.”
Even so, all of those outside studies still paid off in huge dividends.
Johns Hopkins’ neurosurgery program, at the time, accepted only two candidates a year. Because he was able to speak eloquently with the head of the department about classical music and the like, Carson believes it gave him a leg up: “There’s no such thing as useless knowledge!”
And talk about what is and isn’t culturally relevant to any one group is wrong. “Each one of us is culturally relevant to each other. That’s why we are the United States of America … Don’t let anyone divide us!”
He pointed to the graceful image of the bald eagle, crowned with white, sitting on top of the flag. “The reason it can fly high above the fray is because it has two powerful wings — a right wing and left wing. It needs both!”
Carson said in many ways poverty — the thing he hated most — fueled his desire to become a doctor.
“Anything that had to do with medicine, I was right there listening,” he said. “We were on Medical Assistance, so we had to wait a long time to be seen by a doctor. I loved sitting for hours listening to the P.A. system calling for Dr. Jones … I had a dream of one day hearing them call my name, ‘Dr. Carson.’
“But we have beepers today so I don’t get to hear it,” he joked.
The soft-spoken Carson is celebrated for his work with traumatic brain injuries, brain and spinal tumors, hemispherectomy, and epilepsy. He successfully separated the conjoined twins Joseph and Luka Banda in 1997 with a team of 50 Zambian and South African specialists. They separated the 11-month-old twins, joined at the back of the skull and facing opposite directions, in a 30-hour surgery. “At times it looked impossible,” Carson reminisced. “But within two weeks they were crawling. Today they are in the 10th grade.”
Unfortunately, not all conjoined-twin surgeries had the same outcome. He talked about another case in 2003, when his patients were 29-year-old Iranian twin sisters Ladan and Laleh Bijani, connected at the head.
In spite of the unfathomable situation, the sisters had graduated from Tehran University and become lawyers.
“They were so vivacious and smart. Both had college and law degrees. Only one wanted one,” Carson said, always quick to add a little levity.
They knew the risks. “But their lifelong dream was to be separated … ‘Doctor, we would rather die than spend another day stuck together.’ ”
He joined a team in Singapore to do the delicate surgery, which took three days. Unfortunately, the women didn’t survive. But what Carson and the other team of surgeons learned in the process has made it possible for others like them to have a happy ending.
Every procedure has an enormous risk, he said. “But I always pray and ask God to give me wisdom. He’s never failed me yet.”
A big history buff, Carson chronicles the nation’s finest achievements in his latest book, America the Beautiful, encouraging all who will read it to be the best Americans they can be and to get back to biblical teachings.
The curtain went down on the evening, and the audience joined hands singing America the Beautiful. Carson is hoping the shade goes up on Americans’ embrace of what will make our nation stronger and again in the vanguard of educational excellence.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.