Dr. Ben Carson Talks About His Life, Career and “Gifted Hands”

by | February 5, 2009 at 12:47 PM | Celebrities, Interviews, TV News

A frustrated young man with problems in school overcomes the obstacles in his life to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Sound like a movie? You bet, and this one is a true story.

On Saturday, February 7th, TNT presents “Gifted Hands” a telemovie based on the amazing tale of Dr. Ben Carson, whose lifelong journey led him to overcome childhood poverty and racial prejudice on the mean streets of Detroit to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Along the way he turned himself into a best-selling author and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

The film stars Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Dr. Carson and two-time NAACP Image Award winner Kimberly Elise who plays Dr. Carson’s doting, iron-willed and illiterate mother Sonya – the main person in his life who convinced him he had the skill, perserverance, and the intelligence to achieve his boyhood dream.

That dream was a hope to be able to use his God given gifts, a brilliant, inquisitive mind, the single-minded love of a determined mother, and a rare, dextrous ability to translate vision and thought into miracles of surgical precision. His success at achieving his dream has meant hope for some in particular, and for the world at large.

In this excellent film, which I had the pleasure to preview, much is made of Dr. Carson’s peerless eye-to-hand coordination, a talent that has served him well in all phases of his life. Scenes of his pool-playing skills lighten the mood, but well serve the point that the application of intense vision and thought may manifest themselves in much higher pursuits, especially in the struggles of life over death. Thus the story is aptly named.

I spoke with Dr. Carson to talk about the film, his life, and the hopes that he still has for making a difference in the world. As you might expect, it was a fascinating 15 minutes.

What is it like having your life turned into a movie?

It’s surreal. And I’ve had the opportunity before this movie was made, but I’ve resisted the chance. I wanted to be at the twilight of my career before I did it, because your life is never going to be the same again, and I realized that. But, I’ve always looked at the big picture and that is, can something be done in a way that will enhance what your life is about? And what my life has always been about is trying to help people further improve themselves. And I think the movie has done an enormous job with that. I think it will have a tremendous impact.

So then you’re pleased with the results?

I’m very pleased. I was surprised at how pleased I was when I saw it for the first time. We showed it last night at Johns Hopkins in front of 700 of my colleagues and at the end of the movie there was a solid 5 minute standing ovation.

That’s fantastic. Now, often times in dramatic representations of real life stories the truth can be stretched a bit. Did the film makers indulge in any of that?

No, there was extremely little artistic license taken, and that was one of the things that was in the original contract. I wanted the opportunity to look at all of the scripting and to deal with all of the things that were done so that we could maintain the facts. So could there be tiny little things that were not completely true? Of course. But for the most part it was 100% accurate.

Well the story is so inspiring that it doesn’t really need much embellishment anyway.

Well, that was my feeling. I said “why do you need artistic license? Just tell the story like it is.”

How involved were you yourself in the production?

Much more involved than I wanted to be (laughing). I probably got 5 calls every day from the set while they were filming.

So you weren’t on the set while they were making it?

I was on the set for a couple of days, but for the most part, the producers would just call me.

Was it for technical reasons?

Yes, and for accuracy. They were very meticulous for getting things right. The actress who played my wife Candy (Aunjanue Ellis) wanted to know “exactly how did you wear your hair?” and the entire crew were really into detail.

So did you feel that was a distraction for you? After all, you’re a very busy man.

No, it didn’t bother me because I’m not easily distracted. I can still be operating and answer questions without any problem.

How much interaction did you have with Cuba Gooding Jr.?

I first met Cuba when I received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom because he came down for the ceremony. And then subsequently we did some interviews together, like with Ebony Magazine. He’s a very quick study.

Have you become friends with him? Are you close?

Reasonably close. I wouldn’t say he’s one of my closest friends, because over the years I’ve come to understand that when you deal with Hollywood personalities, they’re one thing at one time and another thing at another time. So I don’t know him well enough to know which kind of person he is from the interactions that we did have.

In the movie there’s a memorable scene illustrating your eye-to-hand coordination by making some great pool shots. Were you able to play pool with Cuba?

No, I haven’t played pool with him yet. In the film, all the pool shots were made by a professional pool player.

Are you still playing pool?

Oh, absolutely. One of my friends who is a terrific pool player said to me “I believe they used computer enhancements for some of those shots you made.”

Much like in your field, technological advancements have really helped.

Absolutely.

So let’s talk a little about your childhood. In the film it’s played up very well that you were disadvantaged and that society would look upon someone in your situation as not likely to have a bright future. And it’s clear that your mother, Sonya, was your main inspiration. But were there any other significant mentors in your development that you would say helped you become the man you are today?

Absolutely. You saw one of them in the movie, my 5th grade science teacher who took me under his wing and gave me a lot of extra tutoring in science. And in high school my biology teacher, who spent all of his time disciplining people in class and could never teach the lessons, would let me come back after school for a lot of extra tutoring. People coming out of my high school really were not notorious for being well educated. But I was able to obtain the highest S.A.T. score in 20 years in the Detroit Public School system and it was because of the extra tutoring that I got from the teachers, who did want to teach, but were just in an environment where they didn’t get an opportunity to do it.

I see. But then it also must have come down to your own personality. You had to bear down and persevere on your own, didn’t you?

Absolutely, particularly after my mother started making us read books. And as I read those books it became very clear to me that if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to do that largely on your own. And you’re going to have to be determined to obtain the best education you can, from whatever sources you can get.

So despite the fact that you were helped along the way, it really came down to your own inner strength.?

Absolutely, a lot of self teaching, yes. Things like roaming through the Detroit Institute of Art until I knew every painting and painter, who they were and when they lived, and when they died. That was all done on my own.

Would you say you’ve always had a naturally inquisitive mind?

I think I probably have. Even when I wasn’t such a good student I was interested in taking things apart and seeing what made them work.

Do you feel children are better off today than in the time of your own childhood and maturity?

No, I think they’re much, much worse off today.

Really? That’s a bit surprising to hear.

Well, because they don’t have the same kind of community support that I had. Everybody’s afraid to say anything to anybody else’s child. Maybe they think some horrible thing might happen, and in the schools they’re paying so much attention to things that aren’t important that kids are missing out on the essential things.

That’s a powerful insight. Thinking it over I have to agree.

It’s unfortunate and we’re all suffering the consequences of it in our society.

And you feel this conclusion is based on your own observations?

Oh, absolutely. But all you have to do is go back and obtain, for instance, the 5th and 6th grade textbooks from a century ago and look at what those students were expected to know. I mean I don’t think most college students know those things any more.

That’s fascinating.

We’ve just dumbed things down so much and substituted for the basics all these social things, which, you know are nice, but I don’t think that’s essential education.

What kind of impact did television have on you and your maturing years?

Obviously it was destructive. And when we turned it off that’s when we began to blossom. But, by the same token, it did show us some things that we would never have seen otherwise. Some aspects of life that we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

So I don’t think it’s all bad. I think television can be very helpful, if parents use it in the right way. When my kids were growing up I certainly watched television with them, and some of those things were controversial, even some things that other parents would say “I wouldn’t let my kids watch that.”

But the reason I let my kids see it was because I wanted them to see it with me, so I could interpret it for them, as opposed to somebody else doing that for them.

And also to help open their minds as well?

Exactly.

Let’s talk about your surgical career. What lead you to believe that you could succeed in those radical operations when so many others had failed?

Faith in God. And I’d had quite an illustrious career aside from those very newsworthy things so it wasn’t like I was coming in cold to the situation. I had a lot of surgical experience.

And what about technological advances? Did you feel they had finally matched your skill?

Oh, absolutely. And staying abreast of all the new developments and being able to apply them in new ways, which is obviously how we continue to advance.

Do you feel we’re still advancing in that same way?

Oh, my goodness, yes. There is surgery today that is completely different than it was 25 years ago.

Now, in the movie a lot is made of your eye-to-hand coordination. I’m fascinated by that because I was a pretty good glove man in my youth. Did your skill manifest itself in any other ways as you were growing?

(laughing) Well, I was very good at fussball.

Fussball? Oh, right, that’s that soccer game with the levers…

Right, table soccer. That was one of the things that helped me to realize that I really had that eye-to-hand coordination. At a summer job once, I worked at a steel factory, and they allowed me, as a summer student, to operate the crane. This is where you’re taking tons and tons of steel and picking them up, going through narrow aisles, dropping them on truck beds. It requires an enormous amount of coordination that frequently they don’t let the guys who have been there many years do it.

How did they arrive at the conclusion that you would be able to do that?

Because I think somebody was sick one day and they let me try it and they were all astonished.

Because you could manipulate the complicated hand controls?

Yes, absolutely. And you have to take into account the momentum and how to properly displace the weight of the load. Somehow I was a natural.

Sounds like the basis of another story. Do you have plans to write any more books?

I will write some more. My publisher has really been after me to do it. But I have to really feel it in my gut though. Probably in the next year I’ll start on a new book.

I know you’re pressed for time, but my last question is, what do you feel is your greatest achievement or honor?

The thing I am most proud of is starting the Carson Scholars Fund, and being able to take young people who achieve at the highest academic level, and who also care about others, and put them on the same kind of pedestal as we do with the All-State basketball players and the All-State wrestlers.

Don’t miss the premiere of “Gifted Hands – The Ben Carson Story” on TNT, February 7th at 8 p.m.

We’ll be watching on Fancast.