50 States: Johns Hopkins' Dr. Ben Carson

ByABC News via via logo

Nov. 12, 2002 -- Dr. Ben Carson performs delicate brain surgery on children every day at Maryland's premier medical institution, Johns Hopkins. He is a superstar in the world of medicine because he saves lives — and because now he knows what it's really like to be a patient.

While he was in the middle of performing one of his intricate surgeries, Carson found out he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

"I have the ability to put things out of my mind, so I just put it out of my mind and finished the operation," said Carson, 51. "But certainly, you know, that evening it did weigh heavily upon me as I began to realize that wow, I have cancer. The thing that bothered me was the fact that I would be leaving so many people behind."

Carson isn't going anywhere soon. The man who had never spent a day in the hospital until last summer underwent treatment, including surgery, and his cancer is now in remission.

From the Inner City to Yale

As a boy growing poor in Detroit's inner city, Carson grew accustomed to fighting the odds. His mother, who raised him on her own, lifted Carson up when others called him "dummy."

Sonya Carson, who had only a third-grade education, pushed her son to read every single day. It was the books that opened his eyes to the possibility of a better life.

"You know, between the covers of those books I could go anyplace in the world, I could be anybody, I could do anything," Carson said. "So you know, it dawned on me — educate yourself, become incredibly valuable and incredibly knowledgeable and don't be a victim."

Carson won a scholarship to Yale University, where he met his future wife, Candy. Together they raised three sons.

Carson was just 33 years old when he became the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He was one of the first doctors to separate conjoined twins back in the 1980s. He became an expert on hemispherectomies — the removal of half the brain to cure seizures.

A Survivor’s Perspective

In surviving cancer, Carson says he now has more insight when treating his own patients.

"I understood more how important it is for patients to really have a good sense of what's going to happen next," Carson said. "You know, 'What should I expect next? How should I be feeling?' And I do try to spend more time in that area now."

His office manager, Audrey Jones, said his patients had a real effect on Carson during his struggle.

"There was a tremendous outpouring," Jones said. "People showed a lot of love for him. He's an awesome, awesome person, and I think that helped him."

Carson said that regardless of how his illness turned out, he always believed that he was fortunate."Things were OK and God doesn't make mistakes … the best was going to happen one way or the other," he said.

The doctor who has helped so many children who've come through the doors of Johns Hopkins is still doing what he does best, but his perspective on work and life has been altered.

"I learned that I perhaps was leading a life that was too stressful, and that I needed to stop and smell the roses a little bit," he said.

ABCNEWS' Robin Roberts reported Dr. Ben Carson's story on Good Morning America.

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