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NEWS FEATURE: Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon and author, reflects on faith and medicine

c. 1999 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ In the ongoing debate about whether medicine and religion can or should mix, Dr. Ben Carson is an example of someone who seamlessly blends the two every day. The renowned pediatric neurosurgeon _ known most for his separation of Siamese twins joined at the head _ prays before […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ In the ongoing debate about whether medicine and religion can or should mix, Dr. Ben Carson is an example of someone who seamlessly blends the two every day. The renowned pediatric neurosurgeon _ known most for his separation of Siamese twins joined at the head _ prays before every surgery and with some of his patients.

Carson, 47, an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, recently completed a new book,”The Big Picture: Getting Perspective on What’s Really Important in Life”(Zondervan). The director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore shared his thoughts on faith, medicine and other topics with Religion News Service.

Q. Much of your new book emphasizes how your faith and your work as a pediatric neurosurgeon are intertwined _ is that an example of how you view the”big picture”in life?

A. Absolutely. The biggest part of the big picture is recognizing that all of us are transient players on the scene and that the only thing that is everlasting is God, so that is truly the”big picture,”and we become a part of that by our relationship with him. That’s the ultimate.

Q. Do you pray before every surgery?

A. Every single patient; even when I don’t operate, I pray because I feel that God is the ultimate source of all wisdom. Quite frankly, as a neurosurgeon, there’s a lot of emphasis on technical ability, but I believe that that’s something that can be taught, but wisdom comes from God and I think that it’s something that you have to seek. You have to ask him for it.

Q. So you combine your technical expertise with the wisdom that you obtain from God?

A. Exactly. Knowing just when to do something, when not to do it, how far to go and being able to take a lot of information and put it all together. … I ask God,”What should we do?”and he tells me. He doesn’t whisper in my ear but I think he speaks to me by giving me the wisdom to know what to do.

Q. When an operation, such as the one with the Makwaeba sisters, the South African Siamese twins, is not successful, do you blame God?

A. God gets all the credit for all the success and he gets responsibility for the things that aren’t successful.

I wouldn’t necessarily say blame but I recognize that he’s in charge and that my part of the equation is simply to do the best that I can do and when I know that I have done that, then I can get over any disappointments that I have with respect to the outcome.

Q. You said that at some point in the successful surgery with the Zambian twins, you believe God took over? Can you explain what you felt?

A. I (was) … thinking about all the things I didn’t have _ my microscope, 3-D wand, lasers and everything I would have had at Hopkins. I realized that I did have the most important thing and that was the presence of God and the knowledge that he had obviously brought all of this about. And I said,”Well, it’s going to be up to you, dear Lord, to take over at this point.” And as I sat down and started operating … I obviously knew what I was doing and I knew what I was trying to do but, I tell you, the steadiness of my hands, the calmness, the deliberateness, all seemed accentuated. It was like I knew what was behind that vessel. I knew exactly what I was trying to accomplish and I was doing it incredibly adeptly. … I knew that I was being guided at that point.


Q. In what other ways does your faith help you?

A. When I look at the volume of things that I have to do _ 400 to 500 operations a year, run a scholarship program, be on a number of boards, teach the residents, do laboratory research, write scientific publications, give medical lectures, be on the speaking circuit, do books and have a family, there’s no way that I could juggle all that without the overriding confidence that God is in control, that he’s going to make it possible for me to fulfill all my obligations and do it in a way that is uplifting to his name … It’s the only thing that really keeps me going. I wouldn’t even attempt it otherwise.

Q. Throughout the book, you mention relying on prayer and God’s healing power. More medical schools are including courses on spirituality and health in their curricula. But Dr. Richard P. Sloan of Columbia University recently co-authored a study saying the ethics of mixing faith with better health outcomes can sometimes cause harm to patients. What do you think?

A. I agree with him … It can sometimes. Sometimes is a key word.

I never force my religious beliefs on patients. I pray for every patient but I don’t ask them to pray with me. If they want to, I’m happy to pray with them. I would never force that kind of thing upon a patient. …

The other thing I find is when you’re getting ready to open someone’s head, there are no atheists.

Q. So you think there can be a legitimate concern about the ethics of mixing religion and medicine?

A. The only ethical problem I have with it is forcing yourself on people when you’re in a position with power. … I don’t think in any way that it’s deleterious to a patient’s health to pray for them or have someone else pray for them.

I think it can be deleterious if they begin to depend more on prayer than they do on proven science. For instance, with Christian Scientists, in a situation where they may have a disease that is perfectly curable by medical science, but opt out of it and say we’re just going to pray about it and even if a patient dies,”Well, that was God’s will,”I think that can be abusive in the sense that … one of the ways that God blesses us is by giving us knowledge of how to deal with problems.

Q. Can you explain why you consider the brain in particular to be a”tremendous gift from God”?

A. God made man in his own image, including the brain, which has capacities that, for instance, allow you to remember everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard is stored in your brain and it never goes away. It can process over two million bits of information per second. It’s the most incredible resource in the universe …


Q. You speak of parenting as the most important job in the world. Do you think our society has devalued parenting in some way?

A. By default, we have in the sense that we live in a society now where the intact, two-parent traditional family is a fond memory. We live in a society where it almost requires two incomes to stay abreast of everybody. Admittedly part of that is because our tastes have become more extravagant and we feel we must have more.

Q. Are you saying that you think most families should not have two working parents?

A. I am saying that that would certainly help with the parenting, particularly of young children, if one of the parents is able to be at home for them instead of having two people rushing around like mad people with very little time for their kids, using the (TV) and Nintendo as baby sitters.

… That has an obvious deleterious effect if you look at, for instance, the explosion of the diagnosis for attention deficit disorder. Have you noticed how it’s skyrocketed in the last decade? …

I think it’s an accurate diagnosis, I do but I think it’s misapplied. We apply it to the children. I think it should be applied to the adults. That’s where the attention deficit is. They’re not paying attention to their kids. ….

What I tell a lot of parents … is wean them off the TV and wean them off the games and start to sit down with them and read with them and it’ll slow their minds down to the point where they begin to appreciate that.


Q. How involved are you in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Are you able to worship regularly?

A. I don’t get to church every week because I’m on the road a lot … I go as often as I can. I’m a local elder in the church and I teach Sabbath school class, but I spend just as much time in non-Seventh-day Adventist churches because I’m not convinced that the denomination is the most important thing. I think it’s the relationship with God that’s most important.

Q. How did you react to the recent resignation of the church’s president, Robert Folkenberg, who was being questioned about his business dealings?

A. I think he is a very honorable man, particularly to spare the church from what was destined to be an incredible amount of turmoil and basically put his own self-interest on the next tier of importance. It makes me respect him even more.

Did he perhaps have some faulty judgment? Of course. Is he a human being like the rest of us? Of course.

Q. You cited times in the past when you attended predominantly white Adventist congregations, only to be encouraged to attend a nearby black one. Do you think your denomination continues to be challenged in the area of race relations or have things improved since that time?

A. It’s certainly better since then, but yeah, it continues to be a challenge _ like many other denominations. One thing that people are going to have to recognize is that when we get to heaven there’s not going to be a white side and a black side and if you think there is, you’re not going to be there.