The Power of a Changed Life
January 1, 2004 - Neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, since 1984. He has received dozens of honors and national citations of merit, and he is the author of many neurosurgical publications and three books. He also is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. In October 2004 he is scheduled to speak at Prescription for Renewal, a seminar hosted by Samaritan's Purse at the Billy Graham Training Center, near Asheville, N.C. In the following interview, Carson talks about his faith in Christ as well as his medical work.
by Jim Dailey
Q: Would you tell us about your experience as one of the lead surgeons on the team that attempted to separate the Iranian twins? It received an enormous amount of media attention.
A: These young girls had been desperately seeking separation for over a decade. Many people had told them there were worse things than being stuck to someone, and they should just deal with it. When I was first consulted about it, I felt an operation was much too risky and dangerous. As it became clear they were determined to have this operation, I consented to join the surgical team. I felt like I would be negligent to let it go on without my involvement.
When I met them for the first time, they were bubbly—just delightful. There was an immediate connection, but there was also a deep and abiding sadness that was palpable. [I sensed] an underlying level of depression because they were so bright, and their aspirations were so different. At that moment I realized that no one in the world could possibly understand what they were feeling. I tried to be empathetic and imagine what it would be like to be joined to a person 24 hours a day.
As we were well into the operation, it became clear to me that we should stop the operation due to vascular complication. They were still in terrific shape, their brains were healthy, and we could study the vascular shifts and come up with a strategy. The family said, "Absolutely not! If they woke up and they were still together, the level of depression would kill them." The Singapore team had promised the girls ahead of time that we would go ahead with it, regardless. So we did, and it was really right up until the very end that things were good. But once we got to the place where all the vasculature had shifted to, the pressure in those areas was so great that we couldn't stop the bleeding. That is something that could have been dealt with, had we known about it. So significant lessons are learned in a situation like that.
Q: How do you keep your composure and sense that God is in control when faced with the enormous difficulties you encounter as a neurosurgeon?
A: It's easy for me because every single day I am dealing with complex things. I realize that disaster is just around the corner almost all the time. I think that's probably one of the reasons that neurosurgeons die early. The average age of death for a neurosurgeon is 59. You are dealing with stress day-in and day-out, all the time. For me, it's not nearly as stressful because God gets all the credit for all the good things, but He also is in control when bad things happen. The only thing He requires of me is that I do my best. That's all I have to do, and recognizing that takes an awful lot of stress off of me.
Q: How did your recent bout with cancer put you in a place of trust in God's faithfulness and sovereignty?
A: I obviously had to think a lot last summer when I got the diagnosis of high-grade prostate cancer. That throws a little kink in the works. I always get an annual physical exam and everything was normal, but I was feeling a bit of urinary frequency.
I went to a urologist who prescribed an antibiotic, but the problem didn't go away. They rechecked my PSA level, and this time it was elevated. They performed a biopsy, and the next day I got a phone call while I was in the operating room. The nurse held the phone up to my ear, and I got the report that I had a very high-grade, aggressive cancer.
My immediate thought was, "Let me finish this operation." I put it out of my mind during the operation, but while I was driving home that night, it really started to hit me—I've got cancer; I could die! I started thinking about my family and what impact that would have on them.
As it turns out, I had a radical prostatectomy done, and it all worked out beautifully. We caught it in time, and I am cured. The Lord is good, that's all I can say. I kept telling everyone that God is too wise to make a mistake. If it's time for me to go, that's fine. He knows best, and I am OK with that. I had always wondered how I would react to such news, and I was pleasantly surprised by how peaceful I was.
Q: How do you integrate your faith with your work?
A: I start out every day with my own personal devotional time of praying, reading the Bible and contemplating. I just try to keep God on my mind in everything I do. I tell myself, "You are a Christian, and you represent Christ." This means everything that comes out of my mouth and every action I do must be affirming and positive to people. I try to keep it that way no matter what is going on and no matter what anyone is doing.
Q: How do colleagues react to your faith? Many in the medical world relegate faith to an entirely different realm.
A: A lot of people do, there is no question about that. But, by the same token, I find that a lot of my colleagues like to talk to me when they have a spiritual issue.
Sometimes I get so tired of people trying to apologize for having a relationship with Christ. I'm not ashamed of who I am and what I believe; I talk about it a lot. I think it's an important thing for our nation, because so many elements are attempting to erase the God connection. They want us to be completely neutral in everything. But to be completely neutral in everything means you don't stand for anything. And if you don't stand for anything, what do you mean? You mean nothing! I think the founding fathers would be horrified if they could see what is going on right now.
When they talked about separation of Church and State, they didn't mean that State should suppress Church, and they didn't mean that people should suppress their religion. We have forgotten that they meant religion shouldn't control government.
Q: Your childhood was spent in a seriously deprived and difficult inner-city environment, yet you wound up attending Yale University. That's quite an accomplishment.
A: I grew up in both Detroit and Boston. It wasn't a particularly pleasant situation. There was never money for anything. There were rats and roaches; sirens and gangs—particularly in Boston, when we lived right in the middle of the tenements. Seeing people lying on the ground or dying was not uncommon. Two of my cousins were killed. I didn't anticipate that I would live beyond the age of 25.
When I was 14, I tried to stab another youngster. My knife blade struck his belt buckle and broke. I locked myself in the bathroom and thought about that. That day I started reading the Book of Proverbs, and I prayed a lot. The Lord took my anger away from me, and I also began to gather insight into who God is and into the incredible power one could have from Him. I had accepted Christ when I was eight years old at a church service, but at that point I realized that by developing the potential that God had given me, I could live in any kind of environment and do anything. The Lord had put that within me, as He puts it within each of us.
Q: There aren't too many teenagers reading Proverbs.
A: Proverbs has so many verses with so much wisdom and instruction. It talks about a fool, how his ways are right in his own eyes and how he won't listen to other people. In other words, the fool's way has always got to be the right way. That was me when I was young. By reading Proverbs day-in and day-out, I started saying, "Listen to your mother; listen to your teacher." When other people were saying, "They are a bunch of old fogies," I was saying, "No, listen." Reading all that wisdom every day gave me direction.
Q: And despite your environment, you came to Christ at an early age.
A: Yes. As an 8-year-old, I remember listening to the preacher tell a story about some missionaries that were being chased. They got to a cliff and found a cleft under the cliff that they were able to hide in. Their pursuers came and were right over them and couldn't find them. The preacher went on to make the analogy of how God is able to protect us from anything, even from seemingly overwhelming odds, because He cares so much about us. That grabbed me. That was when I decided I wanted to follow the Lord.
Q: Wouldn't it have been easy to feel victimized by those economic and social conditions instead of putting your faith in Christ?
A: I talk about the common attitude of feeling like a victim in my book "The Big Picture" and how that attitude robs people of their God-given potential. People who always feel victimized look for reasons for failure as opposed to mechanisms for success.
How do you get away from that? You start looking at positive examples. That's what I did. I would read about Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave. It was illegal for him to read, but he learned how to read anyway, and he read everything he could get his hands on. He ended up being an adviser to presidents.
I look at the story of Joseph in the Bible. It is my favorite story. Joseph made the best of every situation and recognized that God is in control. If you recognize that, as I did, many years ago, you'll say, "My Father owns the universe! He has the most power, the most money, the most knowledge, and He loves me! How could you be in better shape than that?"
Q: What excites you most about God today?
A: His love—that's what really excites me. I couldn't tolerate someone who time and time again kept messing up. He loves us, and He sent His Son to die for us. Can you imagine having enough power to create the universe and having such love for your creatures that you're willing to be humiliated, spat upon, beaten, kicked and crucified, when you could have said "poof" and they'd be gone? That boggles my mind. I thank Him every day for His love.