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If you like Ben Carson's story, you might also like:
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Ben Carson also appears in the videos:
The Health of America: Individual Responsibility
The Arts, Sciences & Creativity
Advocacy and Citizenship: Speaking Out for Others

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Advocacy & Citizenship
The Power of Words

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Benjamin Carson
Benjamin Carson
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Benjamin Carson Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Pediatric Neurosurgeon

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  Benjamin Carson

What is the magic of studying the brain? Why is it so fascinating?

Benjamin Carson: The human brain is the thing that makes you who you are. I never get over my awe of the brain. When I open up -- this week, I was doing a hemispherectomy on a child and looking at that brain. That's an operation where we remove half the brain to stop intractable seizures. But, I'm saying, "This is the thing that makes this person who they are," and if I were to expose my brain and expose your brain, and put them side by side, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference and yet, we're very, very different people, and no one can truly understand that.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Benjamin Carson Interview Photo
People will say it's all logically sequenced, and "We have these biochemicals and they got together and a cell was formed and because of external forces, that cell went in this direction and over millions and millions of years, we evolved into this incredible organism, based on natural selection and survival of the fittest." That's all nice and good to say, but that really doesn't even come close to explaining the human brain, because if it were just survival of the fittest, then none of us would care about anybody else. We'd only care about ourselves. There would be no such thing as a person who is self-sacrificing in order to help somebody else. So there's a lot more to our brains than just the neurons and the synapses. There's an intangible aspect, which is called a mind and a spirit. The thing about the human brain is you've got all of these billions and billions of complex interconnections and neurons which, in and of itself, is fascinating, and then you throw on top of that the whole concept of the mind and the spirit, and it becomes a vast, vast laboratory in which you can work for a millennium and still never get very far. That's what drew me to it, because I knew that I could find some things that were new.

How did you come to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery?

Benjamin Carson: Pediatric neurosurgery became fascinating to me, more because I didn't like adult neurosurgery, in the sense that there were so many chronic back pain patients in adult neurosurgery, and they never got better no matter what you did until they got their settlement. So, it seemed like there were just so many secondary game issues and things. With children, what you see is what you get. You couple that with the fact that I like to do complex things. You can sit there and you can do these enormously complex operations on old people, and it might be successful, and your reward is they live for five years. Whereas with a kid, you do this incredibly complex thing and your reward may be 50, 60 or 70 years. So I like to get a big return on my investment. So, I'd rather go with the kids.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Isn't it harder?

Benjamin Carson Interview Photo
Benjamin Carson: It is more difficult in the sense that they're smaller, you can't afford the blood loss. But the big bonus with the children is the phenomenon we know as plasticity. All the neurons haven't decided what they want to do when they grow up yet. So consequently, you can be more radical in terms of some of the things you do.

For instance, the hemispherectomy, you can't get away with that in an adult, but a child has the ability to actually transfer functions to other parts of the brain. So you can take out half of the brain of a kid, and you'll see the kid walking around, you'll see him using the arm on the opposite side, and in many cases even engaging in sporting activities.

How do you determine that a hemispherectomy is required? That must be the last resort.

Benjamin Carson: Right. We will do hemispherectomies in children who have intractable seizures; that is, they cannot be controlled. If the seizure focus is all in that one hemisphere, the surgery can be extraordinarily effective. This is one of the best examples of what teamwork does. We have to have a pediatric epileptologist evaluating these people, and then you have to have a surgeon who can do the work. I always say good surgeon and a bad candidate is a bad result, just like a bad surgeon and a good candidate would be a bad result. You've got to have good preoperative evaluation, and you've got to have good surgery and good postoperative care.

Weren't you one of the first surgeons to perfect that operation?

Benjamin Carson Interview Photo
Benjamin Carson: I was one of the first people to really revive it. The very first hemispherectomy was done at Johns Hopkins 70 years ago by Walter Dandy, in an attempt to cure a malignant brain tumor. The procedure was brought back by MacKenzie and a few other people, and then fell into disfavor. At the time that I did my first one in 1985 it seemed like something new. An article came out in The Washington Post and we started getting all kind of calls from people. A couple of medical students from the Boston area called and said, "We read about you taking out half the brain to stop seizures, and we talked to our neurosurgeons and they said that we were mistaken and that we hadn't read it right."

Over the course of time, it's become much more widespread again. The key thing is not so much that I was this wonderful surgeon, but I came and relooked at it at a time when I think we had much better tools, much better ways of evaluating things and controlling things, and I think that makes a big difference. As Solomon said in Proverbs, "There is nothing new under the sun." It's a matter of relooking at things, particularly in light of advancements.

It was the same way with separating Siamese twins. I looked at that situation. I said, "Why is it that this is such a disaster?" and it was because they would always exsanguinate. They would bleed to death, and I said, "There's got to be a way around that. These are modern times." This was back in 1987.

I was talking to a friend of mine, who was a cardiothoracic surgeon, who was the chief of the division, and I said, "You guys operate on the heart in babies, how do you keep them from exsanguinating" and he says, "Well, we put them in hypothermic arrest." I said, "Is there any reason that -- if we were doing a set of Siamese twins that were joined at the head -- that we couldn't put them into hypothermic arrest, at the appropriate time, when we're likely to lose a lot of blood?" and he said, "No." I said, "Wow, this is great." Then I said, "Why am I putting my time into this? I'm not going to see any Siamese twins." So I kind of forgot about it, and lo and behold, two months later, along came these doctors from Germany, presenting this case of Siamese twins. And, I was asked for my opinion, and I then began to explain the techniques that should be used, and how we would incorporate hypothermic arrest, and everybody said "Wow! That sounds like it might work." And, my colleagues and I, a few of us went over to Germany. We looked at the twins. We actually put in scalp expanders, and five months later we brought them over and did the operation, and lo and behold, it worked.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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