As a newly-minted resident physician in New York during the late 1980s, I first learned from afar about a certain distinguished neurosurgeon from Baltimore named Benjamin Solomon Carson. Although medical journal articles are the traditional way for most medical doctors to get the latest news about breakthroughs and advances in the field, I became acquainted with Dr. Carson’s early contributions to medicine and humanity during a morning ritual known to all doctors as “morning rounds.”
There I was, on morning bedside rounds during a pediatric rehabilitation residency-training rotation at Albert Einstein-Kennedy Institute Hospital, when my supervising attending physician boldly announced that medical history had been dramatically made. A pair of twins joined at the head (“conjoined twins”) had been masterfully separated by a pioneering Johns Hopkins physician after a 22-hour grueling and history-making surgical procedure.
The neurosurgeon was Dr. Ben Carson, a young and talented member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine faculty. While few of my fellow residents and colleagues had heard of Dr. Carson in those days, most knew of Johns Hopkins’ illustrious reputation as a worldwide center of medical excellence.
Recognizing the enormity of the medical feat that Dr. Carson had accomplished, staff physicians at my academic training hospital acknowledged that the talent and supreme surgical finesse demonstrated by Carson would have a huge impact on enhancing not only the quantity but the quality of life for children by mitigating disability in later life. Ben Carson had performed an unprecedented and courageous “medical miracle” (one of many) that would touch the lives of his patients for many years to come. For doctors specializing in my field of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), this would prove to have special meaning, as this specialty often teams closely with surgical specialties to provide the post-operative aftercare and the restoration and rehabilitation of patients with severe neurologic, developmental, and musculoskeletal conditions.
That was just the beginning. It was not until the summer of 1991, shortly after I graduated my residency training, that I had the distinct privilege and honor to be recruited to the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the School of Medicine. No doubt, a move to Baltimore to work as an attending physician at an institution graced with world-class colleagues like Ben Carson was a huge draw for any graduating resident. The additional benefit was the opportunity to relocate my growing family to Baltimore to experience the quality of its Jewish communal life. Upon my arrival in Baltimore, in 1991, I came to know Dr. Ben Carson personally on the front lines.
My division head at the time, the late Professor Arthur Siebens, M.D., an expert in the rehabilitation of persons with swallowing disorders as well as congenital dwarfism (achondroplasia), and a personal friend of Dr. Carson, would always speak glowingly of Dr. Ben. On one of my first days of work at Hopkins, I fondly remember Art offering “the new recruits” a friendly “mussar-and-mentorship orientation shmooz.” He highlighted the role-modeling, emblematic example of several Johns Hopkins doctors, including Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson. Dr. Carson had a legendary reputation for hard work, common sense, and perseverance through adversity. This brilliant and gifted surgeon would never ever give up when confronted with the most desperate and complex neurosurgical cases. These included children with dwarfism, brain tumors, epilepsy, and other developmental abnormalities involving the central nervous system. Living up to his biblical name “Benjamin,” Ben Carson was the embodiment of accomplishment and the “favorite son” of his colleagues and peers. Carson, whose middle name is Solomon, always exuded common sense and wise judgment. My selected specialization of rehabilitation medicine would indisputably play a critical role in the restorative aftercare and recovery of complex neurosurgical patients, including those operated on by Dr. Carson and his esteemed colleagues. Dr. Siebens words proved prophetic.
Ben Carson’s Legacy
While director of the inpatient physical medicine and rehabilitation consultation service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital during the 90s, I had several valuable opportunities to interact with Dr. Carson and to work collaboratively with him. Later on, I interfaced with him on the management of patients with chronic, intractable pain conditions, including trigeminal neuralgia. Dr. Carson has always been supportive of holistic, nutritional, and complementary methods of pain management. As a physician acupuncturist, I was able to work with him on the co-management of patients, during my subsequent career in the private sector.
Since a significant part of my current professional life is devoted to public vocational rehabilitation, I frequently get to see transitioning youth, young adults, (and some adults) with difficult neurological diagnoses who were successfully operated on by Dr. Carson many years ago and are now transitioning back into the workplace as they enter adulthood. These patients and their families invariably express sincere appreciation and deep and abiding reverence for “gentle Ben” and the lifesaving transformative medical care that he and his team gave them during their youth, which now allows them to achieve self-sufficiency through meaningful employment.
Although I knew precious little about Carson’s personal biography (probably because he was too busy in the OR to tell his story), I learned much about him years later when reading his bestselling book Gifted Hands and through personal conversations. What an inspirational eye-opener!
More than being just another physician, Dr. Carson evolved from very troubled and humble beginnings. He grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances in Detroit, Michigan, abandoned by his father and raised by a single mother. As a child, he had an angry temper, which he learned to contain and overcome. In a self-described moment of “teshuva,” Carson prayed deeply to gain the ability to control his temper and acquire the trait of patience. Carson relates that his demeanor thereafter became placid and calm. In a recent interview in the January 27, 2016 issue of Ami magazine, by journalist Jake Turx, Dr. Carson chronicles his transformation from the worst student in the class – being called a dummy by his classmates – to the brightest pupil in the entire school. All this in the setting of abject poverty. His mother worked several low-paying jobs, including cleaning homes and babysitting, in order to scrape together enough sustenance to support herself and her two sons. The building that Ben’s family lived in was infested with roaches and rats. Drug addicts and alcoholics occupied his neighborhood. Somehow, Ben was able to rise above it all. His mother would require her children to read books every night and submit book reports to her at the end of the week. The information gleaned from reading allowed Ben, the class “dummy” to surprise both the teachers and his classmates with his knowledge, Ben Carson has not ceased to impress people
Emuna and Bitachon: Transcendent Values
As a youngster “coming up” in wretched poverty and suboptimal circumstances, Ben’s upbringing was greatly optimized by his mother, who always brought out the best in him. She inculcated young Benjamin with religion and spirituality and an unrelenting yearning to succeed in school against all odds. Notwithstanding the sadness and adverse circumstances that surrounded his rough childhood, Ben’s mother instilled in him a supreme sense of “emuna and bitachon.”
A deeply-religious woman, Ben’s Momma taught him to always believe in the power of prayer during difficult times. Ben has adopted this principle throughout his life and career. During his formative years, he was able to lift himself out of the throes of hardship with a dose of faith and a strong commitment to personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. In the Ami article, Turx asked Dr. Carson about his secret to success. Carson’s response: “Well, I have a lot of faith in the good Lord. I always say, my only job is to be truthful and do the best I can, and the rest is in G-d’s hands.”
Initially an underachiever in school, Ben was motivated by his mother to give up all TV and start reading books. When Ben was eight years old he received a chemistry set which he played with for hours at a time. Little Ben always knew he wanted to be a doctor and even enjoyed going to the doctor’s office, where he treasured the opportunity to listen to his own heart with the doctor’s stethoscope. He attended Yale University as an undergraduate and was later accepted into the University of Michigan Medical School. Upon graduating with honors, he was accepted into the neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins in 1976. He is credited with performing over 10,000 operations, many on children who were severely ill with life-threatening central nervous conditions or trauma.
Journey through Medical Academia
Ben was “one of a kind” in medical academia. He was one of the youngest ever to be selected to serve as a Division Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery. During the early days at Hopkins, he was sometimes mistaken for an orderly but always took things in stride with a friendly dose of good humor and cheer. As an African-American, he served as a role model and mentor to young physicians of all backgrounds and stripes. At Hopkins Hospital he earned the respect and admiration of colleagues, coworkers, and support staff alike. He received the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his many accomplishments in medicine and public health. In 1994, Carson and his wife Candy pioneered the Carson Scholars Fund, which awards scholarships to students, in recognition of “academic excellence and humanitarian qualities.” His lifelong emphasis on “tzedaka” and charitable giving is remarkable. In June of 2015, he was honored by the Johns Hopkins Medical School Alumni Association at the Distinguished Alumni Portrait Ceremony.
Above and beyond his immense medical, surgical, and humanitarian contributions, Ben always stood out for his kindness, caring, and compassionate demeanor. He was known to frequently spend long periods of time counseling patients and their families. Ben always conducted himself with calm and dignity. His soft-spoken and humble demeanor (“anivus”) was reassuring to patients, families, and colleagues alike. Frequently regarded as a “man of few words,” Dr. Carson has always been a super achiever (“omer me’at ve’oseh harbei”) . His legendary reputation and presence was known and felt throughout the international medical community and beyond.
Into the Political Arena: A Leap of Faith?
While so much can be said of his incredible technical and surgical skills, what has always impressed his colleagues is his extraordinary commitment to ethics, morality, personal virtue, and “middos.”
Politics aside, one need only look at the raging and raucous debate among his political competitors to see that Dr. Carson has earned a unique distinction by conducting himself with dignity, calm, and serenity throughout the grueling and cutthroat campaign process. He has resisted the temptation to engage in the mudslinging, trickery, and deceit so often part-and-parcel of the sullied political landscape.
He has employed the same gracious, practical, and common sense approach to his political life that he applied to his medical career. This has been a guiding principle of his life, and has earned him the respect and admiration of a diverse array of citizens.
Dr. Carson: A Personal Glimpse
Dr. Carson’s sense of humor is always dignified and respectful. During a recent dinner in downtown Baltimore’s Little Italy, I sat right next to him, struggling to open a prepackaged Star-K meal. Somewhat apologetic about my valiant efforts to open the triple-wrapped dinner, I quipped that opening the dinner was harder than running for president. He smiled glowingly and said: “I fully understand: I’ll enjoy my chicken cacciatore while you savor your chicken kashertore.”
Deeply devout about his faith, Dr. Carson never questioned the power of G-d or the importance of a “higher authority” in the healing process. Now that Dr. Carson has entered politics, he continues to adhere to his deeply-felt spiritual and religious convictions. Just as he was often seen “davening” for his patient’s health and welfare in the hallowed halls of Hopkins Hospital, he continues to pray for our country and its future. Dr. Carson proudly proclaims that the posterity of his children and grandchildren is what motivates his run for the U.S. presidency.
Like many of the observant members of the healing professions in our community, Dr. Carson (a devout Seventh Day Adventist, who celebrates the Sabbath on Saturday) understood the conceptual framework of “Verapo yirapo” – the concept that healing is a partnership between man and Hashem. His commitment to the humanistic ideals of medicine has perpetually impressed colleagues. Kindness, caring, and compassion toward patients and their families were middos (virtues) that served as a powerful example to junior colleagues.
Carson made it a point to visit the sick, both his patients and his treasured colleagues. I remember with great fondness his bikur cholim visit to the heart of our community a few short years ago to see a dear friend and fellow Hopkins physician facing a devastating diagnosis. He brought vitamins with him and offered prayers and kind words of encouragement.
Hakarot Hatov: Honoring a Home Town Hero
Although politics will, understandably, never be a major preoccupation of many in our community, one can’t help but reflect on the importance of choosing a candidate with high ethical standards, middos, and kindness, a man who has served our very own community in a special way. As a physician, Dr. Ben Carson has earned a legacy of meaningful and selfless service to our community by providing refuah and chesed. His unique personal background, skill set, and moral fortitude has clearly set him apart from many others seeking higher office. A staunch supporter of Israel, Dr. Carson has a deep and abiding love of the Jewish people and Israel.
On a very personal level, I can’t help but hearken back to my early days of medical training when I first heard about Dr. Carson during morning rounds. Years later, getting to know him personally has permitted me to understand the true meaning of his vision of healing, inspiring, and reviving our country.
Mark Young M.D., MBA, FACP is a Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R), Medical Acupuncturist, and Vocational Rehabilitation Physician: Markyoung123@gmail.com, 410-808-9700.