Dr. Benjamin Carson is my personal hero of modern medicine. I was down on my luck and struggling during the first semester of medical school. I read the book Gifted Hands written by Dr. Carson and only then did I realize that what my parents had said all along was true: you can do anything if you believe in yourself and put God first.
Dr. Carson was raised in Detroit with his brother by a single mom. He overcame poverty, low grades, and anger turning his life to God and to medicine. In 1987, the year I graduated from high school, his named was plastered over the media after he successfully orchestrated and led a surgical team to separate twins co-joined at the head. He is also recognized internationally as an expert in performing “hemispherectomies”. This is a procedure in which half the brain is removed to prevent seizures. Dr. Carson’s resume is extensive. At the age of thirty-three he was named Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He performs over four hundred surgeries a year and he teaches neurological surgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He has written several books and is a role model and inspiration to many. In June of 2002, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer; however, he has not let that stop him.
This February, Oscar winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. will portray Dr. Carson in the TNT Original movie Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting, introducing, and now interviewing Dr. Carson. Here’s what he had to say.
Hip Hop Doc (H2D): Dr. Carson thanks for taking time out for the interview today.
Ben Carson (BC): No problem Doc, thank you for what you are doing in the community.
H2D: I know you are familiar with my mission to help young people. It’s often stated that our youth are a “lost” cause especially when it comes to there health. We have alarming rates of HIV, obesity, diabetes, and substance abuse in our youth. What is your opinion on the state of our children’s health and what can be done to improve this?
BC: Well, I think a lot of what has happened to deteriorate childhood health has to do with the fact that they are not nearly as involved with their families and not nearly as involved with physical activities. This lack of involvement leaves a lot of time for other things that can get in the way and influence them including poor eating, not exercising, and running with the wrong crowds. I think all young people have to create an identity for themselves and if that identity doesn’t come from their family and from wholesome sources they are going to find other sources for that identity and self worth. Even though it may not be legitimate to think that you are worth something because somebody wants to “make love” to you, you’ll take what you can get. Whether that person is HIV positive or not is a distant concern and that’s unfortunate.
H2D: Can you speak specifically on the obesity epidemic? This is really getting out of hand and I see it in my practice among children and adults daily.
BC: Clearly the lack of physical activity is having a huge impact on the development of childhood obesity, diabetes and a host of other medical conditions, including heart disease and certain cancers. I hate to sound old fashion (we both laugh), but we need to go back, reinvigorate the family and get our children active again.
H2D: Definitely! I try to push that point whenever I speak to groups of students and families. I want to address disparities in health care. Several studies have shown where African Americans are treated less aggressively and often later in the stage of a disease. This often leads to poor outcomes. Why do you think these disparities exist?
BC: Well, a lot of it has to do with fear. I know certainly in Baltimore there are many myths that float around like doctors wanting to experiment on a patient. This creates a general lack of trust among minorities and the medical community. This is a major problem. Another reason is that in the African American community many of us don’t ask enough questions regarding our health. You know as well as I do Dr. Whitfield, that when a patient ask questions and manifest some degree of knowledge and concern as it relates to their health, the patient will be treated differently and paid attention to. We need to take advantage of the Internet and other resources available and come to the doctor prepared to participate and ask questions.
H2D: Do you feel physician error plays a part in this?
BC: Most definitely! We have to be more aggressive when it comes to our patient’s health. I teach the young physicians I work with to listen closely to the patient. Eighty percent of the diagnosis can come from listening to the patient.
H2D: You sound like my professors at Meharry. Laboratory test and x-rays were supposed to enhance decision-making and not be the sole source of your diagnosis.
H2D: I recently spoke with Dr. Jocelyn Elders. She was in Baton Rouge for a debate on whether healthcare was a right or a privilege. What are you thoughts on this?
BC: Well first of all, we spend more than twice as much per capita on health care than the next closest nation in the world and yet we rank number thirty seven in health care, which is craziness! I think any civilized society should offer a minimum level of health care for everybody. There should be no one in this country that can’t get very basic things taken care of. The fact of the matter is there is no one in this country who cannot go to an emergency room where they have to be taken care of but it cost five times more than if they went to a clinic and we all end up paying for that. There are ways that we can use those dollars much more wisely if we crack the system that encourages people to go to that emergency room where once the diabetic foot ulcer is treated the physician says, “hey lets get your diabetes under control,” so you are not back in three weeks with another problem. This is a huge problem we have. I believe that basic health care is a right for anybody in a civilized society. Recognize that we live in a capitalistic society and we should have the option of purchasing something more than the basic health care if they have the means and desire to do so.
H2D: That leads into my next question. We know the numbers: 38-48 million people in our country who are un-insured or under insured and many of these are the working poor. Do you thing President Obama can get this system together?
BC: I’ve heard from the Obama transition team and was asked about a government position…
H2D: Surgeon general?
H2D: Well, what did you say?
BC: Well, basically I gave them the same answer that I gave the Bush administration… I’m very happy to help, but I have no desire to become embroiled in the government bureaucracy. Nor do I desire to take a vow of poverty. So as much as I respect the President Obama, I’m going to defer at this time on the position of Surgeon General.
H2D: Understood. Are you still a part of the bioethics committee and what is the role of this committee?
BC: Yes I’m still a member of the committee and basically our role is to advise the President of the United States on ethical issues related to the biological sciences. Things like cloning, stem cell research, and organ donation things we address.
H2D: Dr. Carson you have been an influence and inspiration to many, including myself. Who were some of your role models? I would think after reading Gifted Hands that your mother would be one of them.
BC: Wow, Doc of course she was! She never adopted the victims mentality and never let my brother nor me do that either. Booker T Washington, who you know wrote the book Up From Slavery, taught himself to read even though it was illegal to do so at the time. This great man read everything in sight and became an advisor to two presidents and that really impressed me. My other big role model was Joseph in the Bible. He was sold in to slavery by his own brothers and instead of complaining and giving up, he said basically that if I have to be a slave, I will be the best darn slave there ever was. He ends up becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt. Now that was inspirational to me. My high school biology teacher Frank McConner was great. I mean this guy was dealing with all of us hooligans, but he stilled managed to teach us biology.
H2D: Great! I can’t wait for my young students to read this article. They need to know that even those who have achieved greatness have role models as well. Very few doctors achieve “celebrity” status. Some consider you as a celebrity doctor. I know you were recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and because of your celebrity status, many African American men learned more about this disease. What inspired you to be so open about your battle with this disease?
BC: Well, actually, I did not intend to be so open about my disease. After I was diagnosed with prostate cancer they were announcing on the radio that I had a brain tumor. Then I had all types of cancers; lung cancer, bone cancer; I was dying and had died already (laughing). The Washington Post was doing a series on me, got nervous and asked could they move the interview up. They asked could they follow me through my surgery and then of course Night Line, Charlie Rose and the rest of the national media picked up on it, so I thought, I may as well use this as a means to educate.
H2D: So this “celebrity” doctor thing- is that important to you?
BC: Well you know the movie is coming out in February and I was honored to have Cuba Gooding, Jr. play me. I suspect my life will change even further after that, but you know the only way I see the “celebrity” in me as being useful is to the degree that I can use it to encourage other people. There is so much hoop-la around sports and entertainment and their needs to more around intellectual achievement because our young people are perfectly capable of that as well. That’s what will keep young people at the forefront and not just the ability to shoot jump shots.
H2D: I hear you read Proverbs once a day.
BC: Twice young doctor, morning and night.
H2D: Awesome Dr. Carson. Thank you so much for the interview and I look forward to watching the movie on TNT!
BC: Thank you Dr. Whitfield! This is a great mission and you obviously don’t have to be doing this. Take care of your self.
H2D: Same to you Doc! Peace