Some people’s life stories are worth writing down because of one thing or several things they did that had a historical significance; others are worth writing because of the diverse experiences and interesting stories that filled their lives. In the case of Ben Carson, both of are true. In his autobiographical work “Gifted Hands,” the pediatric neurosurgeon outlines his fascinating life journey — one filled with inspiration, adversity and spirituality.
Dr. Carson, now retired, formerly worked as a clinical faculty member at Johns Hopkins University as the chief of pediatric neurosurgery. Although he personally accomplished or was connected to many remarkable achievements, he is best known for his cutting-edge work in neurosurgery, particularly for performing hemispherectomies and separating conjoined twins.
“Gifted Hands” is the nonfiction account of Ben Carson’s life story, beginning with his earliest childhood memories and following him through his appointment to Johns Hopkins faculty at the impressive age of 33. Although the greatest portion of the book is about medicine, Dr. Carson writes about the field in a way that non-medical readers can easily grasp. Those with some medical background, including medical students, will find his accounts lacking an abundance of detail, as the book was clearly written to a broader audience. Even so, his medical stories are fascinating, and his contribution to neurosurgery cannot be overstated.
The story of these accomplishments is told by Dr. Carson himself. From the outset of the book, Dr. Carson’s personality is evident through his writing style. His prose is straightforward, conversational and very readable. Through his own account, as well as a brief snippet from one of his patients, Dr. Carson is shown to be an honest and down-to-earth person, and his way of writing is a testament to his consistency of character. Perhaps his most noteworthy characteristic, evident throughout the book, is his humility. Writing about oneself objectively can be a difficult task, and I would imagine that it is even more difficult when one is a world-renowned surgeon. Dr. Carson does this well, and deserves credit for his ability to accurately recount his numerous accomplishments without once sounding conceited or arrogant. This is particularly notable as he recounts the separation of the conjoined twins, as he emphasizes the teamwork required and focuses on the success of the group much more than his own abilities.
He tells of the struggles faced by his family early in his life, including being raised by a single mother and living in poverty in Detroit. Woven throughout his childhood vignettes is his interest in becoming a doctor, which he describes as a calling. This calling leads him to Yale University as a pre-medical student, the University of Michigan Medical School, and eventually to Johns Hopkins as a resident. The book is called “Gifted Hands” because of Carson’s call to become a surgeon. Although he was not originally interested in surgery, he was encouraged by others — and eventually discovered himself — that he had an innate ability to think three dimensionally and perform delicate surgeries with incredible precision.
The storyline focuses on the surprising journey of a young black man from Detroit, making it an inspiring book, even for those not medically inclined. Because of this, the book could be read by those at all levels of medicine, but would probably be aimed more towards pre-medical students, or even high school students interested in pursuing medicine as a career. The book was also made into a movie, and though I have not seen it, many have suggested to me that it is true to the book. The overall message, emphasized throughout the story, seems to be that people shouldn’t give up on their dreams. Even when his barriers seemed insurmountable, Dr. Carson found strength in his faith, his family and himself; and he encourages others to do so as well. This message, while perhaps cliché or at least frequently stated, is a message nevertheless that medical students can always benefit from hearing.
Prints, Pages, and Pagers aims to look closely at the lives of medical students and doctors, real or fiction, whose lives and experiences are told in novels, short stories, poetry, or any kind of writing. These book reviews are an opportunity for medical students to learn from the many fascinating stories produced by the field of medicine, and maybe to read something other than a textbook.