Retired neurosurgeon and Republican presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson is all over the news these days. His recent public comments have ranged from the offensive to the bizarre: from his assertion that he would have tackled the Oregon college gunman to the discovery that he once “bravely redirected” an armed robber he encountered in a Baltimore Popeyes. And how can we forget his infamous comments about how a Muslim shouldn’t be President or how Jews could have stopped the Holocaust had they only been armed? His statements are so increasingly preposterous that it’s hard to distinguish a satirical headline from a real one (like this hilarious Andy Borowitz report, “Ben Carson: Pompeii Victims Should Have Outrun Lava,” which many on social media thought was real).
In the public consciousness, Ben Carson used to be the grape jelly to Donald Trump’s chock-full-of-nutty peanut butter. He was the seemingly mild-mannered straight man to Trump’s loud-mouthed crassness. Yet he’s gone so far off the rails these days as to appear borderline unhinged, certainly out of touch with reality. Ben Carson is, in the words of another genius Andy Borowitz report, single-handedly shattering the stereotype that brain surgeons are smart.
As a physician trained at Johns Hopkins Medical School, I stand with my colleagues who are outraged at Carson’s opinions about Obamacare “as slavery”, abortion “as human sacrifice” and prison as capable of turning “a lot of straight people into gays.” From being a well-respected neurosurgeon on faculty at Johns Hopkins Hospital, known the world over for separating multiple sets of twins joined at the head, Carson has become an embarrassment to the profession of medicine, and should be called out as such. I am dismayed that he’s not been more roundly and publicly criticized by doctors across the country. He’s not just making physicians look stupid, he’s making us look like clueless egomaniacs. Unfortunately, the roots of his cultural tone-deafness can be easily traced to our profession. So I don’t just blame Ben Carson, I blame everyone who helped Ben Carson become Ben Carson. I blame a culture of medicine that not just allows but rewards the unchecked growth of professional egos. I blame a profession that rewards doctors for thinking, and acting, like they are gods.
Back in the day when I was a student and Carson was a professor at Johns Hopkins, he was the keynote speaker at my ‘white coat ceremony’ — the pomp-and circumstance-filled event in which young physicians in training are made to literally and metaphorically feel the weight of their profession upon their shoulders. “You are entering a time honored and ancient profession,” someone intoned at us, while our Dean assured us that as Hopkins med students we were “the best of the best.” Although the ceremony itself was intended to be a humbling experience, the culture of the institution assured that it was laced with plenty of pomposity. And in my first year of medical school, that arrogance wore the face of Dr. Ben Carson.
Forget the Holocaust, forget his opinions on gun control: any physician who is willing to write a memoir called Gifted Hands and speak of himself performing “miracles” needs to be looked on as an out-of-touch megalomaniac. We in the medical field should have all seen this coming. Yet, back in the early 1990’s, not only Ben Carson, but the rest of Johns Hopkins Medical School seemed to buy into the myth of the godly Carson — the King Solomon-like surgeon who ran around separating children like the red sea (Ok, I’m mixing my Biblical metaphors, but you get where I’m going.)
At my white coat ceremony, as I recall, Dr. Carson talked a lot about that near mythical separation of the conjoined twins. To his credit, he also described the challenges of being an African American neurosurgeon, relating stories about patients who mistook him for the cleaning staff. But even in those tales, the undertone of godliness was always there. Finally, Carson told a long-winded and wind-baggy story about being called away to perform emergency surgery the day of his son’s fifth birthday party. That night, on returning home, having missed the cake and gifts, the balloons and singing, Carson apparently woke his small son up and told him, “This year, I didn’t have time to get you a present, son, but this year, for your birthday present” — and here, Carson paused for dramatic effect — “I saved another child’s life!”
At the time, I remember the auditorium exploding in applause — even as I, someone who had always dreamed of balancing my medical career with motherhood, actually left the room crying. I can’t explain my tears beyond just my own disgust and discomfort with the self-congratulatory old-boy’s culture I had entered. I kept thinking: What five-year-old cares about anything other than his parent simply being there by his side on his birthday? (And maybe getting some Legos?) And is a parent who has to miss a fifth birthday party because she is, say, on a hospital cleaning staff any less of a good person than someone who does so because he is a life-saving surgeon?
To be frank, Carson’s speech just seemed like blowhard bullshit to me – but no one else around me seemed (or let themselves seem) bothered. I felt a little bit like the child in the story about the Emperor’s new clothes – couldn’t everyone else see what self-aggrandizing nonsense we were applauding? But maybe the reason no one blinked at Carson’s ridiculous, self-important speech that day is because of one fundamental reality of medical culture: we in medicine love our God complexes.
In his classic essay “Surgeon as Priest,” surgeon-author Richard Selzer writes, “One enters the body in surgery, as in love, as though one were an exile returning at last to his hearth, daring uncharted darkness in order to reach home … you shall know surgery as a Mass served with Body and Blood, wherein disease is assailed as thought it were a sin.” A slightly less poetic version of the priestly surgical personality is portrayed in the film The Doctor (1991), in which William Hurt plays a classic old-boy’s surgeon who teaches his underlings, “When you’ve got 30 seconds before some guy bleeds out, I’d rather cut more and care less.”
But what’s a little harmless pomposity between doctors, amirite?
Not only does this lack of humility on the part of physicians undermine empathy, and our capacity to attend to our patients’ stories, but when unchecked, it can perpetuate a dangerously un-self-critical attitude. The doctor who thinks he is always right is a dangerous thing. Yet, consider that the first thing you see when you enter Johns Hopkins Hospital is a giant, multi-story statue of Jesus, arms beneficently outstretched. If that doesn’t suggest a doctor-as-god-complex, I’m not sure what does. And if Hopkins med student lore is to be believed, over Ben Carson’s mantelpiece in Baltimore once hung an oil painting of himself arm-in-arm with Jesus Christ. (I never saw it myself but I knew people who knew people). And this is the guy who wants to be our President? I can only hope he soon admits on television how he’s planning on hanging that “Jesus is my BFF” painting in the oval office.
Granted, maybe being the President isn’t unlike being a hot-shot doctor. There are lots of life and death decisions to be made, lots of people depending on your guidance and wisdom. Yet, for both presidents and physicians, the inability to be self-critical is not just a personality flaw, but a professional danger. It results in people who are unable and unwilling to admit mistakes, listen to others, to grow and change in their opinions. Ben Carson is coming off in the national media as an unhinged lunatic because his professional training may have made him a very good surgeon, but it also made him a deeply flawed human being who is unable to look at himself critically. As opposed to a God complex, humility should be the first job prerequisite for both presidents and physicians. I can’t help feeling that Jesus would agree.
Ben Carson has been able to get this far perhaps because the authority of his professional veneer has effectively masked his true idiocy. As Andy Borowitz, quoting “Harland Dorrinson…a neurosurgeon from Toledo Ohio,” writes, “When people found out I was a brain surgeon they would always assume I was some kind of a genius … Now they are beginning to understand that you can know a lot about brain surgery and virtually nothing about anything else.”
Or, in the words of Richard Selzer: “The surgeon knows the landscape of the brain, but does not know how a thought is made.”