“Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” is a 2009 film directed by Thomas Carter, tells the story of American pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. It’s the story of a man who didn’t have the “right cards” for success. In fact, considering how his life started, his family history, and his economic conditions, he could easily be called “unfortunate.”
But at a certain point, his life changes.
What is the element that made the difference in a rather unfortunate story, transforming it into a success story?
What were the common determining factors in other success stories?
The film begins with a risk taken by Dr. Carson: his superior presents him with a difficult case, conjoined twins with their heads attached, and they need to be separated:
“Nobody’s ever done it. In situations like this, one baby always dies.”
And immediately after, when asked for an answer regarding the case, he responds:
“I will operate… I am looking for a way.“
He doesn’t know how yet, but he will operate on them. He negotiates the time to have the opportunity to search for and find a solution. And he takes the RISK. What significant achievement does not involve taking a risk?
The narrative in our montage begins in Ben’s adolescent period and follows his growth as a man and as a doctor. Going back in time, we see young Dr. Carson in a scene where two important factors emerge: imagination and sponsorship that will accompany him throughout his life. The boy considers himself limited, incapable of even using his imagination. He says to his mother:
“Mother, my brain’s too dumb.“
And the mother, manifesting her role as the boy’s “sponsor,” his first ally and supporter, responds:
“You got all the world in here. (touching his forehead). You just got to see beyond what you can see.“
In the following scene, during the sermon, he finally manages to imagine the scene corresponding to the story told by the Pastor in his own way. Not only does he imagine it, but he also draws inspiration from it. Ben returns home and excitedly recounts what he was able to see, concluding by saying:
“I saw it in my brain… But it was real, it was really real.”
And immediately after, he communicates with determination what he wants to do when he grows up:
“Mother, I want to be a doctor.“
Moreover, studies have shown that the brain is capable of experiencing the same sensations, learning, both when it undergoes an experience, when it observes it, and even when it imagines it.
Another fundamental ingredient among the factors of success emerges during adolescence: curiosity, which provides the motivation to learn new things, to ask questions and find new answers, to explore. In the scene, the two brothers are watching a quiz show on television, where people answer questions on different topics that they are both passionate about. One asks the other:
“How could they know so much?“
In the next scene, we see Ben walking and picking up a particular stone in the library, asking:
“Excuse me, do you have any books on rocks?“
Those who are curious seek to understand, to know, to find alternative solutions. Only those who have been curious in history have invented, discovered new things, or found new ways to do old things.
Another factor that plays a fundamental role and is often found in success stories is anger, which resurfaces at various moments in the protagonist’s life, caused by episodes of bullying or racism experienced at school, as well as during adulthood and specialization. It’s an anger that, until a certain point, is out of control, but then becomes a driving force for change, for building a better life.
Another element recognized as a crucial ingredient for success is uniqueness. Seth Godin, a marketing guru, wrote in “Purple Cow“: “If you’re not remarkable, you’re invisible.”
During the interview for admission to the Neurosurgery Residency Program at John Hopkins University, the Dean of the school asks him:
“Why we should take you?“
To his response, “I have good grades and excellent recommendations.” the Dean replies:
“As do all of our applicants.“
Ben tries again: “Johns Hopkins is my first choice. It’s my only choice.“
And the Dean throws the ball back at him:
“You have confidence. Yes, that’s good in a neurosurgeon. But tell me something, why did you decide to become a brain doctor?“
And here is where Ben Carson expresses his uniqueness, his vision, and what he deeply believes in:
“The brain… It’s a miracle. Do you believe in miracles? Not a lot of doctors do. There’s not a lot of faith among physicians.
I mean, we study reports, we cut open bodies, it’s all very tangible, solid. But the fact is, there’s still so many things we just can’t explain. I believe we’re all capable of performing miracles, up here. I believe we’re all blessed with astonishing gifts and skills.Look at Hendel! I mean, how can he compose something like the Messiah in only three weeks? This is the channel (pointing to the brain). The source, the inspiration for unbelievable accomplishments.“
The expression of that uniqueness allowed Dr. Ben Carson to enter the Neurosurgery Residency Program in 1976 and enabled him to truly perform miracles and enter the history of medicine.
Another ingredient, not just in my opinion, is doubt. Having doubts, questioning yourself allows you to seek alternative answers to the ones you already have, thus expanding the range and type of situations and problems you can tackle and solve. In another scene, Dr. Carson, faced with this “enigma” that needs to be solved in order to perform the surgery, is afraid of not being able to do it. He goes through that “dark” moment because he hasn’t found the right way, the right solution yet:
“Look, you’re the best pediatric neurosurgeon in the world.“
“You may think I’m the best.“
“If you can’t find a solution, no one can.“
Descartes wrote that doubt is the beginning of knowledge. And that’s exactly what happens to Dr. Ben Carson: the transition from doubt leads him to imagine, as his mother taught him when he was little and throughout his life, to see beyond what he could see, until he reaches the right intuition, the solution.
Since I teach Doctor-Patient Communication to doctors and healthcare professionals in general, I want to emphasize another aspect of the skills demonstrated by Dr. Carson: not only technical, scientific, or hand-eye coordination skills, as he himself defined them. I’m talking about his relational and communication abilities, with other doctors, nurses, patients, and their parents.
In the scene where he explains to a couple of parents the surgery he plans to perform, going against the opinions and diagnoses made by other doctors until that moment, he uses simple words, metaphors, and similes to make himself understood. He speaks honestly, without hiding the risks.
“One doctor called her a mentally-retarded epileptic.”
“Well, I’m here to tell you that she’s not.“
Dr. Carson studied the case from different perspectives to explore the possibility of a different diagnosis and, therefore, a different solution.
– “Do you really think you can help?“
– “I can try.”
– “The left side of Cynthia’s brain is like a troubled kid on a playground beating up on her own twin. Now, you control that kid, and the playground’s at peace.“
– “How do we do that?“
– “There’s an operation called a hemispherectomy. It involves removing the seizure-prone part of the brain.“
– “How will she be able to live or survive with half a brain?“
– “It’s not as bad as it sounds. We don’t know why, but a child’s brain has a remarkable ability to recoverIt’s as if the brain cells haven’t decided what they want to be when they grow upThey take on the functions of the diseased cells and then eventually restore the neurological function.“
– “You think there’s a chance this will work?“
– “Yes. I do. But it is a gamble. There’s no way around that. If Cynthia survives, she could be paralyzed on her right side. The left side of the brain controls the speech area. She may lose her ability to speak.“
– “Have you done one of these operations yourself?“
– “No. I have not.“
In this whole dialogue, Dr. Carson conveys hope while stating the situation exactly as it is, fully aware that it’s “a gamble.” Honestly, I believe that seeing and listening to the scene on all three levels of communication—verbal, nonverbal, and paraverbal—is the best way to understand and appreciate this example of physician-patient communication and relationship.
True ingredients of a real success case in the history of medicine: In 1985, Dr. Ben Carson performed the world’s first hemispherectomy, and in 1987, the first separation of conjoined twins.