Surgeon's inspiring tale shot in Detroit

1:45 PM, Dec 7, 2008   |    comments
DAVID LEE/TNT Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr., left, stars as Dr. Ben Carson, right, a Detroit native, in a TV movie based on Carson's memoir, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story."
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(By L.L. Brasier, Detroit Free Press) - Ben Carson remembers his mother returning from work to their Detroit home in the 1960s, worn from spending hours cleaning other people's houses. Houses in seemingly faraway places like Birmingham and the Grosse Pointes. Houses that seemed like palaces to the small boy.

Sonya Carson had a message for Ben and his brother, Curtis, though: Those people in those big houses are just like us, only they have educations, goals and dreams they worked hard to achieve. We can have those things, too, she told them.

And today, Ben Carson does.

The small boy who struggled in the Detroit Public Schools, branded a "dummy" by his fellow students, is now a world-renowned surgeon; the director of pediatric neurosurgery at one of the world's most prestigious medical institutions, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and a celebrated author and inspirational speaker.

His remarkable story is the subject of the new movie "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," shot in metro Detroit in recent weeks. It stars Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carson and will be released by TNT in early 2009.

"The main thing I'm hoping is that a lot of young people will recognize themselves in me, recognize that they themselves are the most influential factor in achieving their goals," Carson said in an October phone interview while in Detroit, consulting on the set. "Know that it is not enough to just wish, that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but it can be done."

'The real deal'

The movie has been six years in the making. Executive producer Margaret Loesch and her partner, Dan Angel, of the Hatchery, a Los Angeles production company, read Carson's memoir of the same name and optioned the book. They eventually teamed up with Sony Pictures and TNT.

"I have had the privilege of working with some remarkable people over my career: Jim Henson, Steven Spielberg ..." Loesch said. "And Dr. Carson is one of those rare people with a vision and a focus who wants to do good in the world. Ben Carson is the real deal.

"As a filmmaker, this is the most important work I've ever done," said Loesch, who has been making movies for more than 35 years. "There are a lot of touches that are based on truths. We want this movie to entertain, but we also want it to change people's lives; to show young people what they can do, what they can achieve; that you can come out of abject poverty, but with the right values, you can do anything."

Loesch said she chose to film in Detroit to help lend authenticity to the movie.

The movie traces the Carson family's early years in Detroit, where Sonya Carson, with a third-grade education, struggled to support her two boys. The boys' father abandoned the family when Ben Carson was 8.

The movie examines the turning points in Carson's life, including that moment in fifth grade when his mother decided that Ben would have to shut off the television and start reading. Her assignment for him: Read two books from the Detroit Public Library a week and write reports.

Then she would dutifully examine the reports and mark them up.

It was years later when Carson realized that his mother could not read -- and that the marks were there to convince her sons that she was monitoring their success.

It was around that time that his teachers realized that he could not see, and a new set of glasses suddenly opened up the world to him.

Soon, he was an avid reader and good student, skills that eventually earned him a scholarship to Yale University. From there he went to the University of Michigan Medical School.

Importance of faith

But along with reading and getting an education, Carson's mother also taught him the wisdom of faith.

"I'm not a religious person, but I am a person of great faith, and I believe in God and what He is able to do," said the now 57-year-old Carson.

And it is that faith that helps him as a physician. He operates on more than 300 children a year and prays before every single surgery. He has gained international fame for his successful surgeries separating conjoined twins, including the Binder twins of Germany. The two boys were connected at the head, and the surgery took 22 hours.

To be sure, there have been setbacks and struggles, as well.

In 2003, he agreed to join the surgery team seeking to separate Iranian twins Laden and Laleh Bijani, 29-year-old lawyers who were joined at the side of the head. They told him they would rather die than live conjoined for the rest of their lives.

After 50 hours of surgery in a Singapore hospital, Laden died, then Laleh died 90 minutes later. Carson turned to his faith to help him with his grief, and he found comfort in the knowledge that the surgery had helped teach the dozens of doctors who had participated new things about conjoined twins.

"Every day, I pray for wisdom," he said. "My faith is one of the reasons I've taken on things I sometimes thought were impossible."

Today, he lives in Baltimore with his wife, Candy, whom he met at Yale. His mother, now in her 80s, lives on the second floor of their home in her own apartment, hundreds of miles -- and worlds away -- from the houses she once cleaned to support her boys.

And, dutifully, Carson visits with her every day.

"She knew I could do it," he said, and laughed. "She didn't really give me any other options."

Contact L.L. BRASIER at 248-858-2262 or brasier@freepress.com.

Additional Facts
Dr. Ben Carson

Personal: 57, married, three grown sons

Professional: Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Education: Graduated with honors from Southwestern High School in Detroit, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Yale University, graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School.

Honors: Has more than 40 honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.

Notable accomplishments: Earned international acclaim for his work separating conjoined twins, including the Binder twins, who were separated in 1987 following 22 hours of surgery. In addition to his memoir, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," he has written "Think Big: Unleashing your Potential for Excellence" and "The Big Picture."

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