“Wake up! Ben! Ben! Wake uhhh . . .”
Horrific pain shot through my midsection, abruptly silencing my frantic cries. It radiated to the extremities of my thirty-nine-week-pregnant body as I tried to breathe. It was two a.m., and Ben, coming off another rough week, was sleeping deeply and not responding to my desperate pleas. Prior to this particular night, I had found it amusing that he could wake from a sound sleep at a single ring of the telephone or beep of a beeper, but with any other sound, even when our first baby son would cry, Ben would be the one sleeping like a baby! He called it “selective hearing for medical survival.” I’m not sure I believed him, but it sounded good.
Only it didn’t sound so good as the pain started up again. The contractions were unexpected because I still had one more week to go and the first baby had taken a full forty weeks. Yet here I was in the midst of what I knew had to be labor, and because the contractions were just under two minutes apart, I was thinking this was, to put it mildly, not good!
On the next break from the pain, I managed to make my way to the bathroom, getting there just before another contraction hit. Calling out from the well-lit bathroom to the still-darkened bedroom, the message finally reached Ben’s subconscious.
Once awake, Ben went into doctor mode, though he didn’t yet realize how advanced my labor was. “Are you sure the baby’s coming? How close are the contractions? When did they start?” he called from the bedroom. Still trying to catch my breath, I couldn’t answer right away, but thank God for Lamaze! The breathing rehearsals from those classes kicked in and did their job! When I had breath enough to answer, I realized that not only was the baby coming, he was actually here!
“Honey, I think you better check,” I replied. And sure enough, little BJ was there. Ben dashed into the bathroom just in time to catch BJ before he fully emerged, holding the baby in one hand while he caught the afterbirth in the other. The emergency was not over yet, though, because the umbilical cord needed to be clamped. Ben literally had his hands full, so he told me to find something to clip off the placenta.
Considering I had just given birth, this might be considered a bit much to ask, but it had to be done, because the placenta contained the baby’s wastes, and it would be unhealthy for that to flow back to the baby. Fortunately, since the labor had taken less than an hour I was able to move around without too much difficulty. I ran up and down stairs looking for anything that might work, peering into drawers, checking on shelves, using my imagination to conjure up an answer to the problem as I searched the entire house, along with Ben’s mother, who was staying with us to help. Ben was calling out potential solutions, suggesting clothespins and other items—but I knew there weren’t any clothespins in the house, because we had a clothes dryer even back then.
Suddenly, rummaging through a drawer, I found a roller clip, the kind that is shaped like a bobby pin, only with straight shafts. I ran back up the stairs to where Ben had the baby, and he clipped off the umbilical, gave a sigh of relief, and must have cleaned the baby up. I don’t know exactly what happened next, because by that time the fire department had come and I had to answer the door. The startled firemen instructed me to take my place on the stretcher. I politely told them I’d been up and down the stairs several times and really didn’t need one. “I can walk just fine,” I said. They countered with “This is ‘procedure,’ ma’am,” but they finally offered an alternative: a seated stretcher, much like a sedan chair that carries royalty in the old films. It was great fun being carried around like a movie star!
In one sense, BJ’s birth is the story of our life in a nutshell. From the day I met Ben, he has come through for me in difficult situations. The life of a neurosurgeon isn’t an easy one, and like others he has been called to go above and beyond the call of duty almost constantly. The life of a neurosurgeon’s wife isn’t much easier, and I’ve had to put up with challenges that most wives don’t face. But it’s all been worth it. Together, we’ve been through poverty, tragedy, disappointments, joy, successes, and wealth. Even when things have been hard, we’ve had each other’s backs. I can’t help but admire and cherish a man who always puts others first. I love this guy.
College and Meeting Ben
When I left home after high school graduation, the anticipation of new learning experiences thrummed through my veins. The excitement of going off to college, of being on my own, thrilled me. What freedom to make decisions all on my own, what power, answering only to myself! But it was a bit scary, too, no longer having the immediate gentle counsel of my parents! What if I made a mistake?
• • •
I had no plans to marry a doctor when I headed off to college. As a kid from inner-city Detroit, I had stayed pretty close to the neighborhood I’d grown up in before going to New Haven. When I first arrived on Yale’s campus in the fall of 1971, I was amazed, astonished, filled with wide-eyed wonder. I dutifully read all the handouts for new students to make sure I was up on things and had an understanding of what was required, but the sheer magnitude of this adventure was somewhat mind-boggling! But I kept my astonishment to myself. As a freshman, I wanted to act cool, like this was everyday stuff.
It wasn’t that my parents hadn’t tried to give me a breadth of experience, but we were from a pretty humble background. The daughter of a Floridian physician and nurse, my mother was orphaned at age twelve and was raised by her great-uncle and -aunt in Detroit. She had finished high school at fifteen and started college right away, becoming a teacher and later marrying my father, who worked in an automobile factory in Detroit.
Born Lacena Rustin, I was the third of my parents’ five children. Linzy was the oldest, followed by Cerise, then came me, and Del was the youngest. I arrived at a time when my mother was working to provide a stable home life for her family. My father was an alcoholic, something Mom wasn’t aware of when they married, because during their dating period she saw him only when he was on leave from the army and he was on his best behavior. Dad’s addiction forced him to drop out of pharmacy school, but by the time I was two years old, he had realized how destructive alcohol was and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. We hosted AA meetings at our home regularly and Dad never took another drink.
When I was three, my baby sister, Sinena, a year younger than Del, died in a fire, a tragedy that must have really shaken my parents, but my childhood was pleasant despite the tragedy, and the addiction issue had been resolved by the time I might have noticed. Dad was a family man who didn’t mind playing with us and made us kids all feel special. He would hold our hands as we attended parent/teacher conferences while Mom was involved in her own at her school. And Dad was a great cook. He could take chicken and make it so tender and flavorful it would make you cry for mercy. Best of all, Dad was my hero for sneaking me candy. Mom didn’t like us having too much, but Dad would provide me with treats from time to time because he knew how much I liked them. He started calling me his “candy,” and the name stuck.
The sweet tooth that earned me my nickname didn’t change. From the time I was about eleven on, as one of our chores, my sister Cerise and I would take turns baking cakes for the AA meetings. I liked baking but didn’t appreciate my mother’s rule that we couldn’t eat the fruits of our labors. I realize now, and probably knew subconsciously back then, that she only had my best interests at heart as I was a chubby kid. But it just didn’t seem fair that we had to go through all that work baking from scratch and mixing the icing from powdered sugar and butter and not even getting a little taste. We were obedient kids, though, and the rules ruled.
In fact, Cerise was always willing to do whatever helped to keep the peace. I recall one time when we were being babysat at the home of some of our parents’ friends, and the lady of the house required that we go to bed by seven p.m. Cerise wasn’t my senior by much, but she was allowed to stay up a whole extra hour later than our little brother, Del, and me. The injustice of having to go to bed an hour earlier than our sister (when we usually all went to bed at the same time) seemed so unfair. And because we were allowed to watch television, something that was a very limited treat at home, it simply didn’t seem right that Cerise should have an extra hour to watch while we didn’t. Del and I of course protested our bedtime quite vigorously, but our hostess was firm in her decision. So Cerise, with her giving, sacrificial spirit, said she would go to bed at the same time as we did even though she could have watched TV an hour longer. That attitude was typical of her and she has been a terrific role model for me as well as a great best friend.
Mom was very practical and organized things so that no one person in the family had too much to do. We divided up chores, taking turns preparing Dad’s morning coffee the night before by filling the water reservoir and inserting the filter with the required amount of coffee grounds, so that all he had to do was plug it in once he came into the kitchen. We helped Mom with her classroom bulletin boards, setting up her classroom at the beginning of the year and moving out at the end of the year. We even helped her with grading math and science papers from the time we were in upper elementary school.
As a result of her efforts, my first paycheck came from the Detroit Board of Education. Mom had needed someone to sketch historical figures on mimeograph sheets so that she could reproduce them for her class—photocopiers weren’t yet widely used. Because I had taken art classes, Mom got me hired. It was cool to be paid for something I enjoyed doing, and really exciting to know I had earned my own money. I quickly envisioned spending sprees. But my mother gave me another vision—a reality check—and informed me that the money would go toward college.
Chores were shared, and once they were done we could take advantage of the many freebies available in the city. Mom felt she had missed out as a child and was committed to introducing us to as many experiences to broaden our horizons as possible, as long as they were free or close to it. The neighborhood recreation center was one of our “hot spots,” and it was there that my sister and I took ballet and tap dancing, and I learned leather craft.
Football games were free because we lived behind the high school. Dad would park Betsy the car—a big black Buick hardtop—under the cherry tree in our backyard, and we kids would sit on top and watch the end of the field that we could see. The rest of the field was hidden behind the bleachers, but we didn’t care. Sometimes we’d even have popcorn. And Dad always let us name our cars. The last one was a Mercury we bought in 1965 which was so sleek, we called it “Hot 25.”
Although Mom’s primary source of income was from teaching, she also was our church organist, and as such required that each of us learn piano and at least one other instrument. Dad even played piano some too. And she made sure we were kept busy with orchestras. At one point in high school she was driving me to rehearsals for three different orchestras besides the two that I played in at my school.
With my mother being a teacher, of course bad grades just were not acceptable. Our parents set the bar high and we had to get the best grades. We practically lived at the library, we visited there so often. And as a teacher, she also helped us to understand that “teachers are people too.” On Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and other holidays, while most kids would make cards for their friends, we made cards for the teachers and administrators because they might be left out.
Mom and Dad believed in service as well. Every Sunday, when Dad would make coffee for early service at church, he had us take turns measuring the coffee grounds, because he wanted us to learn to help out in the church. We also helped with other church functions like pancake suppers and Vacation Bible School. From the time we were young, Mom would volunteer herself and us for programs around the city and get us in free, and sometimes we could take home extras of the treats that had been distributed to guests at special programs. Because we all played instruments, she would take us to nursing homes and play for the residents there. Later on after Dad succumbed to cancer, Mom even became the chaplain at several nursing homes.
Because Mom taught science and math, we all had some interest in those subjects and some experience with grading papers in them. As a result, it was sort of natural for me to choose premed as a focus for my college studies, though I wasn’t committed to a medical career. By the time I got accepted to Yale, I was simply tired of people asking me what I was going to do. In high school everyone takes the basics, but there’s not much opportunity to try a lot of different things. That’s what college is for; with so many classes in so many disciplines, students can explore various subjects to determine where their talents really lie. So I figured if people asked about my major, I’d just respond “premed,” and go on about my business. I wouldn’t be stuck trying to explain, “Well, I haven’t quite decided yet,” or “I haven’t found my niche yet,” or “I can’t make up my mind.” And I liked science anyway, so I started out with science courses, which turned out to be quite a bit of fun, by the way.
The Wonders of New Haven
Yale itself was a huge adjustment. On the college campus were gorgeous architectural styles of periods I had only seen in books. Exotic foods were the norm. Or perhaps I should say, expensive foods that we had never even read about, like London broil and Cornish hens. This was a stark contrast to the frozen bags of mixed vegetables that were a staple in our household. Because both my parents worked, they were usually exhausted when they got home and the meals were quick, easy fixes, for time at home was limited, but on weekends Dad treated us with his specialties.
College was a “land of wonder” I had to take in, and I tried to get over the amazement of it quickly so I could apply myself to the job at hand: studying. Sterling Library was another architectural wonder, packed with books of all shapes, sizes, subjects, and interesting covers and bindings. Some were done in leather with brass clasps, others had metal corners on tooled, embossed leather covers. I recall having difficulty concentrating while attempting to study in the stacks, as I would discover even more of these uniquely designed book covers.
In the dining halls, we folks from the ghettos of America found it was wise to listen first to the conversations around the table before saying anything. We wanted to find out what was the prevailing attitude of those who had been more privileged growing up, so we could fit in. But it wasn’t long before we discovered that virtually everyone was searching for purpose and meaning in life. The questions “Who am I, really?,” “Why am I here on this earth?,” and “What is my real purpose in life?” came up time and again as students finally had enough free time on their hands to relax from school duties, household chores, jobs, et cetera, to consider the seemingly elusive “ultimate reality.” All of us were seeking answers.
Sometimes the people we asked for those answers didn’t always guide us correctly. A word of caution to those who go to institutions of higher learning. I had a few questions with respect to credits and requirements for students with more than one major, so I made an appointment to see my counselor. His office was what you’d expect with a desk loaded with piles of papers, bookcases filled with references, et cetera. He was cordial and seemed genuinely interested in my goals and aspirations. At the end of the meeting I felt well armed with his advice to tackle the challenges ahead. But a little voice in the back of my mind told me to check a few other sources to make sure that I was headed in the right direction. I didn’t want to make any big mistakes when it came to preparing for my eventual graduation. I really was quite shocked when I discovered that he not only didn’t answer my questions appropriately, but that the information he gave me was exactly the opposite of what was required. So when you ask advice, please double-check either with others from that department or other departments that interface with that one. Your time is limited (and costs money!) and you don’t want to waste it by doing the wrong thing to accomplish your goals!
I was happy to make it through my first year, and then, in the midst of all the continued unsettled questioning during my sophomore year, I noticed that there were two students who always appeared to have their act together and to have already found their purpose. They were confident, self-assured, and comfortable in their own skins, which drew me like a moth to a flame. These students were Ben Carson and his roommate Larry Harris. They were both premed seniors and were truly “easy on the eyes” handsome. And they didn’t mind talking to me, a mere sophomore! Many upperclassmen would just brush by those of us with less college experience, but these two always said hello when they saw me. I was flattered and intrigued and decided I wanted to learn what made these two men different.
Extracurricular Activities with Ben
One time as I was walking back to the residence hall from class, I ran into Ben and his roommate going in the same direction. After general greetings and questions about classes, the conversation turned to music. When they asked me if I knew anyone who played the organ, I admitted I had filled in for my mom at church back home from time to time and had played at my high school baccalaureate. They then explained the reason for the question. The church they attended needed an alternate choir organist, and as representatives of the choir (Ben sang bass and Larry sang tenor) they asked if I would like to try out. After a short pause, I replied that I would try, but that I hadn’t played in a while.
The audition did not go well. I had no organ to practice on and hadn’t played in more than a year, so it showed. I was embarrassed, but both Ben and Larry were perfect gentlemen. Neither laughed—at least not out loud. And the organist who was in charge of the audition was very tactful, recalling that I hadn’t had a chance to practice much and suggesting that perhaps I might enjoy singing with the choir. I eagerly accepted, and, well, what a treat that was. You always hear of how “the whole is more than the sum of the parts,” but to actually see (or hear) it in action is quite a marvelous revelation. So I continued going to choir rehearsals on Friday nights with the guys, as well as Bible study (Sabbath school) and church on Saturday.
The Bible study was completely refreshing. Learning directly from the Holy Book was not only enlightening but fulfilling. Most times in our church back home, biblical principles and precepts were interpreted and disseminated by the minister. But the regular practice of studying the Bible, discovering the truths more experientially with a subject guide, was new to me. The Seventh-day Adventist Church publishes daily Bible study guides for each quarter of the year, commonly called “quarterlies.” These are distributed a week or so before they are current to give everyone a chance to prepare for the week’s lesson. I thoroughly appreciated the focused commentary of the booklets and was also impressed with the seriousness and dedication with which the parishioners attempted to follow what was learned. Worship service was somewhat different from what I had grown up with as well. The liturgy was not the same weekly verbiage interspersed with intoned chants that I was used to. The service progressed with more congregational involvement in a less formal format.
When I asked what makes the Seventh-day Adventist Church different from others, the answer was always the same: “Seventh-day Adventists take into consideration the whole Bible and don’t leave out any parts, or try to change any.” And the church is called Seventh-day Adventist in keeping with the sabbath that God observed in Genesis 2, which was confirmed as a sign between God and His people in Exodus 20. It all made sense to me, so I decided to join the church.
Typically on a Saturday morning, Ben, Larry, and I would ride to church on the bus, or sometimes one of the members would pick us up from campus. It was a wonderful break from the rigors of academia. Lifting our voices together in praise by singing hymns, having lively Bible discussions, and in general, worshipping and fellowshipping with like-minded believers was a greatly relaxing and enjoyable way to recharge for the next week.
The first time I recall witnessing Ben saving a life was one such Sabbath at the church we attended in Hamden, Connecticut, about twenty minutes’ drive from the college campus. The service had started and all the preliminaries had been completed. Announcements, the first hymn, prayer and scripture readings had all been done and we had settled back for the wise words of the week. Gazing forward and taking in the homily, Ben and I figured that poor Larry must have had a hard week, for he had fallen asleep. The little snores he emitted were what tipped us off. At first we were the only ones who noticed, but as his snoring increased in volume, he drew the attention of a no-nonsense church lady seated next to us. Her wide-brimmed, floral-trimmed hat bobbed indignantly as she prepared to give him what looked like it would be a sizable wallop. Before she could connect her ample arms with Larry’s person, Ben quickly but gently shook Larry’s shoulder, whispering urgently, “Larry, if you value your life, you’d better wake up.” Larry kept his eyes open for the rest of church that day.
As most young ladies do when they begin to notice a guy with “potential,” I thought there might be possibilities. His confidence, leadership qualities, and calm demeanor were attractive, and the fact that he was a handsome dude wasn’t lost on me either. However, it wasn’t long before my hopes for the “potential” I had seen were dashed and I was disabused of the idea that we could be more than casual friends. He and his best buddy, Larry, were generally kind, considerate, and respectful and treated me as an intellectual equal, but there was one serious drawback. They enjoyed teasing me by calling me names, often in other languages. Perhaps they thought it was all in fun, but it certainly was not amusing, fun, or anything like that for me! It never occurred to me that the gibes that so bothered me might be signs of affection. Fortunately, the benefits I got from going to their church were so important to me that I just decided I’d turn a deaf ear to their taunts and enjoy the new approach to spiritual education that was now available.
I wasn’t the only person who was impressed by Ben Carson. It was pretty clear to anyone who knew Ben in college that he was special. Even as a child, Ben had the desire to be the best he could be, and his dedication to excellence had carried him far. Though I knew little about his childhood when I first met him, I could see the fruits of his mother’s discipline in the way he carried himself and as they were revealed in his own high standards even before I knew the stories of events that had shaped him.
One story I would later learn from Ben’s older brother, Curtis, perfectly encapsulated Ben’s competitive nature. Concerned for her sons’ education, Ben’s devoted mother, Sonya Carson, had required that the boys read and report on two books each week. Once she had laid the law down about going to the library, the boys would make that trip virtually every day, and it was a “good little hike,” Curtis remarked. “Ben had somewhat of a competitive nature and could make a game out of almost anything.” As the two of them would cross the streets on the way to school or anywhere else, Curtis noticed (but Ben wasn’t aware he had noticed) the way Ben would time his steps so that his foot would touch the opposite curb as they crossed before Curtis’s foot would. Ben never mentioned it nor was he overt in the manner in which he performed this challenge, but every single time they would cross a street Ben had to get there first. And in general, Curtis said, he always seemed to manage things so they would come out the way he wanted them to. That desire to be the best still resides within his chest.
Ben was a stickler for being on time as well. Curtis remembers that when their mother required them to be back home by a certain hour, Ben would calculate the time it took to get from there to their destination to make sure he knew exactly when to leave to keep their promise. So when they were allowed to go play baseball, Ben kept a close eye on his watch as they made their way over, to determine exactly how long it took to walk from home to the ball field. All the kids would be seriously playing, making their long-reach catches, getting as many hits as possible, and running bases like their lives depended on it. But when the calculated time came to leave, Ben would stop whatever he was in the middle of and start walking home. It didn’t matter if it was in the middle of an inning or if he was at bat, he was not going to disappoint his mother. Poor Curtis would try to at least finish out the inning to be fair to his team, and then would run to catch up to Ben. His worst fear was that Ben might see a big dog, run out into the street to get away from it, and get hit by a car. And Curtis knew he needed to be home at the same time or at least close to the time Ben arrived so he wouldn’t be considered guilty of not keeping an eye on his younger brother.
In New Haven it was the same. Ben always arrived five to ten minutes ahead of time for everything, including class, his job, church, and social meetings. He would rather be early than late. In the movie Gifted Hands, which chronicles his life, he is shown being almost late for class, but that didn’t happen in real life. Even when someone ran a red light, crashing into and totaling his car near the hospital on his way to work in March 2012, he still got to the OR in time to do his surgery.
Some might wish I could point out Ben’s flaws from those early years to balance out his virtues, but the truth is that I can’t think of anything. Other than the incessant teasing, which did drive me up the wall, Ben is the closest to perfection that I can imagine. He was and is a very devout believer in Christ and maintains and protects that relationship with God diligently. One “fault” one might say he has is that sometimes he’s so focused on what he’s doing that he doesn’t see what might be right in front of him. For example, if I’m looking for a missing item, like my glasses or a file of papers, sometimes it’s right before his eyes. He was just too focused on what he was doing to notice it right away. So there are two rules in our house. Rule number 1: If you really want a message to get through, say it three times. Rule number 2: If you hear something three times don’t get upset—it’s the rule.
Curtis also recalls that he had no memory of Ben ever being seriously punished. He seemed to learn from his big brother’s mistakes. But one time when Ben was in the third grade and felt he had really gotten into big trouble at school, he came home at lunchtime because school was so close, and started rummaging through the garage. “Curtis, have you seen the rat poison?” Ben’s query brought the response “No. But why would you want rat poison?” Ben said, “I’m looking for the best way to kill myself. Something bad happened at school, and there’s no other way out of this.” Curtis made an effort to look thoughtful for a few seconds while his mind reeled with horror at what Ben was trying to do, and said as nonchalantly as possible, “Well, there’s a much better way to do it, if you really want it done right.” “And what’s that?” Ben eagerly asked. As solemnly as he could muster, Curtis counseled, “You have to drink a lot of water . . . a LOT OF WATER. You keep drinking and drinking until you finally burst.”
Ben couldn’t help but question him again: “Are you sure this will work? Is this really the best way?” and Curt reassured Ben in typical big brother fashion, “Oh yeah! I know for a fact that this is absolutely the best way to do it!” So obedient little Ben drank . . . and drank . . . and drank . . . and continued to faithfully drink (as well as go to the bathroom—he said the liquid was coming out almost as quickly as it was going in). He continued until late in the afternoon, when he realized it wasn’t worth the effort. Fortunately, by the time I met Ben ten years later, he had been eager to live again for quite a while.
When Curtis joined the ROTC in high school, he didn’t think Ben had even noticed. Curt first saw it as a nice alternative to gym class, and after reading about West Point in the books his mom had required them to go through from the library, a career in the military had become his goal. The uniforms, parades, and medals drew him in. He had set another strong example for his brother, and Ben decided to join the ROTC after his first semester in high school.
Well, once again, when Ben joined, he wanted to be the best. The highest rank a student could earn was colonel, and the highest ROTC rank for a student in the city of Detroit would be the city executive officer. Ben was thinking, “Wow! What if I could make it all the way to the top!” This was a feat that typically required six full semesters, the last three years of high school. So it didn’t seem possible because he had started a whole semester late (in the second half of his sophomore year instead of at the beginning). But you should never say “never.”