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Dr. Ben Carson's tells us when to take a risk

By Hope Katz Gibbs
August 1, 2010
Be Inkandescent Magazine

How risky is it to separate conjoined twins? Dr. Ben Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, says he doesn’t think about his work in those terms.

“You don’t go into a field that requires cracking people’s heads open or operating on something as delicate as the spinal cord unless you are comfortable with taking risks,” explains Carson in his latest book, “Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk.”

Previous books include “Think Big,” and “Gifted Hands,” which became a made-for-TV movie for TNT starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. Directed by Thomas Carter (Coach Carter). The film reveals Carson’s inspiring life story as a poor, inner-city youth who overcame great odds to become one of the world’s best surgeons, thanks to the love of his determined single mother (played by Kimberly Elise) and an unswerving faith.

Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk

In “Take the Risk,” Carson packs the pages with gripping tales about some of the most complicated cases he’s worked on — including trying to separate the 29-year-old Iranian twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani, and successfully performing a risky hemispherectomy (the removal of one-half of the brain) on 4-year-old Maranda Francisco.

Carson’s book illustrates how his experiences have enabled him to move forward instead of being paralyzed by fear.

In it, the surgeon explains his belief that in our security-obsessed culture his attitude is unique, and that’s why he felt compelled to issue a wake-up call.

“I wanted to send a message to Americans that we’ve become a nation of yellow-bellies,” he tells The Connection. “What we’re buying, and what everyone is selling us, is the promise of security. Yet the only thing we can be sure of is that someday every one of us will die.”

Carson’s advice: “Don’t focus on how you might die, but consider how you should live.” Fortunately, he provides a prescription for success. The second half of his book outlines a simple assessment system he started using years ago, called the Best/Worst Analysis. (See Dr. Carson’s Tips for Entrepreneurs to learn more about that technique.)

A Little Background

Ben Carson was raised in poverty on the streets of urban Detroit. His mother Sonya was a teenager with little education and no professional training. But she was determined to raise Ben, and his older brother, Curtis (now an engineer), to be accomplished—and fearless.

It wasn’t easy. Their father left when the boys were young, so Sonya moved the family to Boston to live with her aunt and uncle. They attended a church school, and when Sonya was finally on her feet and able to move back to Detroit, Ben had fallen behind academically.

Although he had made a promise to himself at the age of 8 that he’d grow up to become a doctor, at 11 he was considered the “dumbest kid in the fifth grade.”

At the risk of alienating her sons, Sonya took away their TV privileges and instructed them to read two books a week, write a report and read it aloud to her (because she couldn’t read herself).

When Carson reached seventh grade, he was at the top of nearly every class. In the years that followed he also found ways to outsmart street thugs, his own bad temper and racism.

Carson’s Gifts

His ability to stay focused-and teach himself through books and determination eventually earned him a full scholarship to West Point, which he turned down to attend Yale University.

There, he met his future wife, Candy, and after graduation went on to attend the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Today, at 56, he performs 400 surgeries a year, holds more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees and has been named by the Library of Congress as one of 89 Living Legends.

“Being successful is simply a matter of making good choices by using our incredibly sophisticated brains,” says Carson. “We all have the means to analyze risks and decide which are worth taking and which should be avoided. That’s a simple but powerful prescription for life, love and success in a dangerous world.”

When should you take the risk?

Dr. Carson realizes that not everyone has the same risk threshold as he does. He also knows that in the case of separating Siamese twins, someone will likely die if the risk isn’t taken.

“But if things are going along smoothly, why would you risk making changes?” he reasons. “But if the boat appears to be sinking, it would probably be a good idea to jump into the water and try to get to safe ground.”

He believes this is true in all aspects of society — especially when it comes to the Health Care Reform Act.

“As a country, we aren’t going to make much progress if we take a status quo, ‘whatever will be,’ attitude to our laws and what is acceptable in society,” he says. “When it comes to having affordable health insurance that is accessible to all, we need to be proactive.”

As business owners, he believes, we all need to analyze the situation. “We need to ask what are the future implications for our organizations — not just to cover the employees we have today, but those we will hire in the future. As I understand it, health insurance is going to get much more expensive due to the additional requirements of this bill. The risk, in this case, is not carefully analyzing the situation. The sign of a good leader is to see something, recognize it, deal with it before it becomes a crisis.”

In fact, Dr. Carson is fleshing out his concern about the direction in which the country is going in his next book, In Blank We Trust, which will be published in 2011.

“As a nation, we seem to have forgotten our values and principles,” he says. “We are all so concerned about being politically correct and appeasing everyone that we have lost touch with who we are as a nation.

“Typically, this is what happens to societies before they decline. The new book is my attempt at issuing a wake up call to people. I want to tell them that they don’t have to be ashamed about who we are as a country. America has found a way to reach amazing pinnacles before others, and we shouldn’t throw that out.”

What decision is Dr. Carson struggling with today?

“I am trying to decide if I should buy a personal plane,” he shares. “I spend so much time flying around the country, and too much of that time is spent waiting in airports. I could be so much more efficient if I had my own airplane.”

To decide, he’s worked with his Best/Worst Analysis model.

“There is a part of me that thinks it’s too flamboyant, but there is another part that knows it is the logical thing to do,” he says. “Based on my own system, I’ll likely buy a plane in the next year.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.