Ben Carson: Dialogue with a pediatric neurosurgeon who, despite surgery for cancer, still thinks big

Author of Gifted Hands, Think Big , and The Big Picture, Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr., is director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He is professor of neurosurgery, plastic surgery, oncology, and pediatrics; and has authored more than 90 neurosurgical publications. Dr. Carson is the recipient of 27 honorary doctorates and numerous civic and government awards. He was chosen as one of 89 living legends by the U.S. Library of Congress, and received recognition by CNN as one of today's 20 leading physicians and scientists.

He is also a patient. In June last year, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and was operated in early August. In this interview, Dr. Carson shares his thoughts on the impact this experience has had on him and his faith, and provides an update on where he is now. Dialogue ran a profile on him in 1990, and since that time Dr. Carson has been blessed with many positive experiences. His influence has run as far as the White House and Capitol Hill, but his center of dedication is still at the Johns Hopkins Hospital where he works in one of the most difficult areas of medicine--brain surgery. His success in performing "miracles" is attested by many, but in his quiet and unassuming manner he gives all the credit to God.

Dr. Carson is in much demand as a motivational speaker and has many opportunities to testify to his faith in God and his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Coming from an underprivileged background, Dr. Carson rose from being the classroom "dummy" to his current prestigious position through his "mother's encouragement and the grace of God." Not that all was smooth sailing. At the age of 14, he had problems with anger and once tried to stab a friend in the stomach. The boy's belt buckle saved him, breaking the blade.

That incident led Dr. Carson to completely re-evaluate his life and where it was headed. He prayed for the Lord to take away his anger, and to help him with his dream of becoming a doctor. Today, he is one of the most gracious and gentle people you could ever meet, a testament to the ability of the Lord to transform us into His likeness.

Dr. Carson lives in Upperco, Maryland, with his wife Candy, and teenage sons Murray, B.J., and Rhoeyce.

Dr. Carson, thanks for being willing to talk with Dialogue again. What has been going on in your life since 1990?

Lots. First, I have become much better known throughout the world. There have been many acts of recognition, and many opportunities to share with others, often at very high levels.

One main thing is a tremendous demand for my services. One could become selective, for example, and only take paying patients, but I could never do that. So I have had to figure out better and better ways to take care of people, and also to refer them to the best experts regionally.

What about your professional work? I hear you do more than 400 operations a year.

I'm planning to cut back on the procedures to about 350 a year. I'd like to extend the opportunities for public speaking, which I enjoy--but I never want to do this exclusively.

Some years ago, I considered leaving the medical profession. It can be incredibly frustrating, with all the bureaucracy and managed care that cause financial constraints. I told myself it wasn't worth all this hassle.

That's why I have been working to establish the Benevolent Endowment Network Fund that would make it possible to practice medicine in a reasonable way. For those who are under-insured or who have no insurance but who have complex diseases, this fund would mean the physician can treat without worrying about the patient's financial status. When I was encouraged to become a physician, I studied the life of Christ and His healing ministry. He didn't check insurance status first! I would love to be able to realize that dream.

Then there's the Carson's Scholars scholarship program (www.carsonscholars.org) which is on the verge of exploding. I am committed to this concept of helping young scholars progress, not just from an academic perspective but also for human quality. About $400,000 has already been disbursed in scholarships, and we have several local branches with more coming.

I have also become more involved in the government area, becoming acquainted with Presidents Bush and Clinton and getting to know some of the cabinet, senators, and congressmen. Many have urged me to enter politics, but I would only do so if God grabs me by the collar and puts me in. Since I don't believe in political correctness, my views don't necessarily sit well!

What of your current health situation? How does it feel to go from being a doctor to being a patient for a while?

I think I'm a pretty good patient, for a doctor. However, I much prefer being a doctor to being a patient! Perspectives are different. I hope I am pretty sensitive already, but this illness has made me even more sensitive to people with disease and pain. It also confirms my appreciation for the care given! I've always said that nurses are the infantry of medicine, and being a patient has enhanced that appreciation to an even greater level. Mind you, I don't necessarily always do what I'm told to.

How did you learn about the cancer, and how did you react?

I had some symptoms, and I had them checked out. After trying antibiotics and other treatments, I had a biopsy. The initial indication was of only an 18 percent chance of prostate cancer. However, the next day I received the results while I was performing surgery. A nurse held the phone to my ear. It was cancer, and a high-grade cancer, too. That kind of threw me for a loop. I said, Thank you, and tried not to think about it during the operation.

On my way home, the thought weighed heavily on me. The cancer could possibly have already metastasized. The cancer was also high-grade. I had something that could kill me. It wasn't the thought of dying, but of leaving family, patients, staff--the myriad people that were depending on me. I felt like I would be betraying them, and this weighed heavily on me. My wife Candy and I talked about it. We were not 100 percent sure what this all meant. While it was kind of frightening, Candy reminded me that the Lord would take care of it, because He always does.

Can you share some specifics about the results of your surgery?

The surgery was very successful. The cancer was contained, but within one millimeter of breaking through. The nodes were all negative, and the nerves were spared. I am going to continue!

What has this experience done to your faith?

Even in the bleakest moments--thinking that I may have had metastatic disease to the spine--my faith was strong. As I've said before, I believe God never makes mistakes. This gives me great confidence. Even if I die, it will be for a reason, and God will make the best of it. Even though I had nothing like Job's experience, I can identify with his statement about God--Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him. To my dying breath, I will have confidence in God, and be sure that He will take care of everything. By the same token, I didn't think God would let me die, even if I did have metastatic disease to the spine. He could solve the problem and cure me. It wasn't going to happen.

My experience has deepened my relation with God. Even though I have always started and ended the day with prayer and Bible study, I do so now with even greater vigor. I have been thinking and appreciating what God has done: the flowers and the trees, the incredible beauty of birdsong in the morning, the foxes, and the cornfields. I am so thankful for a healthy family, for God's gift of freedom--to come and go as you please, to choose to do what you want--it's an incredible blessing.

I now recognize to an even greater extent how much God loves us. I have been thinking about my own life, remembering the time I was 8 years old, sitting on the dilapidated wooden steps of our home in Boston, surrounded by weeds and dirt patches and broken glass, with the winos and the gangs. I remember the sense of hopelessness I felt then. Boy, it has been a long way from there to now!

And the person who brought you here was God, I reminded myself. How God brought that little boy from that old tenement to here. I thought of the people of the Bible, and how God was just as active here today. He is willing to listen to us and to work in our lives. As it says in Proverbs 3:5, 6: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths" (KJV).

So what would you want to share with a young person, someone studying at college?

Keep on witnessing! Don't let anyone else define witnessing for you. If you are a Christian and love other people, that will show through. For witnessing is not necessarily about giving out tracts or conducting formal Bible studies, it's about how we treat people and how we react to things. It's about being kind and loving to others, and not joining in sarcastic, cruel gossip, for example. Don't become the same kind of dogmatic person as those who may argue against you. By looking to further the debate, by respecting opinions that are different from yours, you can be a much more effective witness.

When you speak publicly, what message do you share?

It depends on the audiences. I give a speech at the hospital once a month. I often speak on the concept that the person who has most to do with what happens to you is you.

With educators, I point to the influence that a well-placed and motivated teacher can have. To political and civil groups, I speak on leadership and responsibility, and the deleterious effects of bureaucracy.

When I speak in academic circles, at universities, my beliefs are up front. In this environment, I often have to deal with the whole political-correctness thing. There's a tendency to feel that any exotic or Eastern religion is OK, while anything traditional of Christian is not! Tolerance, however, means more than having people agree with you. You have to evaluate, be objective, and demonstrate openness. Intellectuals frequently say of Christians, even those who are educated, that they are weak-minded and need their beliefs as a crutch. But these intellectuals cannot answer why people love each other. The evolutionary scheme does not fit. Interestingly, when I speak at university and college campuses, it might seem that I would not be appreciated, but in fact my reception has been uniformly enthusiastic.

So what of the future?

What does God have in store for the future? Something quite different to what I think it will be, I'm sure! I just hope I'm ready. He has a tendency to set things up! I don't know, but God does. He knows how all the pieces fit together.

And you still believe in thinking big, to use one of your book titles?

Yes, that's the message: Think big! That's what God wants for all of us.

Interview by Jonathan Gallagher. Jonathan Gallagher is the United Nations Liaison Director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His e-mail address: GallagherJ@gc.adventist.org