Faces of Black Excellence History April 17, 2020 at 04:00 pm

The 1987 conjoined twins surgery that shot neurosurgeon Ben Carson to fame

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

Michael Eli Dokosi April 17, 2020 at 04:00 pm

April 17, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Dr. Ben Carson, then-director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, holds a model of the heads of conjoined twins Tabea and Lea Block of Lemgo, Germany via AP Photo/Chris Gardner.

Ben Carson, the current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, claim to fame was the Binder twins’ delicate surgery in 1987. He was by then a brilliant young pediatric neurosurgeon at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But life had been tough for the Detroit, Michigan native born on September 18, 1951 to Sonya and Robert Solomon Carson. His mother Sonya married when just 13 only to find out her husband had another family. That discovery led to divorce and hardships for Carson and his siblings.

Lagging behind in class, Sonya forced her boys to take to reading while reducing their TV time. The experience helped Carson to top his class so much so that he graduated with honors from Southwestern High School as a senior commander in the school’s ROTC program, earning a full scholarship to Yale, receiving a B.A. degree in psychology in 1973. 

Carson enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, choosing to become a neurosurgeon. In 1983, he served a year at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Australia where he gained experience and honed his skills tremendously.

Carson returned to Johns Hopkins in 1984 and in 1987 attracted international attention by performing a surgery to separate seven-month-old occipital craniopagus twins in Germany. Patrick and Benjamin Binder were born joined at the head. At the parents invitation, Carson went to Germany to consult with the family and the boys’ doctors. The boys were joined at the back of the head but had separate brains. The operation to separate them to enable them lead their individual lives could be successful, but could also lead to death or leave the pair in a vegetative state.

On September 4, 1987, after months of rehearsals, Carson and a huge team of doctors, nurses and support staff joined forces for what would be a 22-hour procedure. The twins did suffer some brain damage and post-operation bleeding but both survived the separation, allowing Carson’s surgery to be considered by the medical establishment the first successful procedure of its kind.

However, Carson himself only occasionally cites and never dwells on the story of Benjamin and Patrick Binder for good reason. The separation of the twins offered long-term benefits for science, but did not result in a happy ending for the Binders.

“In a technological ‘star wars’ sort of way, the operation was a fantastic success,” Carson said in an Associated Press article from 1989. “But as far as having normal children, I don’t think it was all that successful.”

Updates on the children were limited after they returned to Germany following the surgery. “I will never get over this. . . . Why did I have them separated?” the boys’ mother, Theresia Binder, told the Freizeit Revue, a sister publication of Bunte, in November 1993. “I will feel guilty forever.”

Theresia Binder and husband, Josef, welcomed the twins on Feb. 2, 1987 although nervous, they loved their babies. Doctors, however, informed them that should their sons remain joined, they would never be able to sit, crawl or turn over. Learning to walk was out of the question. But Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was world-renowned for taking on difficult cases and there was Dr. Carson, the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the country.

“After studying the available information, I tentatively agreed to do the surgery knowing it would be the riskiest and most demanding thing I had ever done,” Carson wrote. “But I also knew it would give the boys a chance — their only chance — to live normally.”

On Labor Day 1987,  the twins went in for surgery. For four hours, heart surgeons inserted “hair-thin” tubes into their veins and connected them to heart-lung machines that would keep them alive through surgery. Plastic surgeons sliced into their scalp, removing the bone tissue that connected them. The cardiologists then cut open their chests and removed small amounts of tissue from their heart to use later to construct new veins. One twin was finished in 57 minutes, the other in 63.

The Binders’ early recovery was closely charted in subsequent headlines. After seven months, the babies and their parents returned to Germany and then, news of the Binders almost immediately evaporated. Even Carson lost track of them, he would say later in an interview, noting that he had written letters and never heard back.

On the back of separating the twins, Carson remained in the news. In 1992 he published “Gifted Hands” which became a made-for-TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. The NAACP gave him its prestigious Spingarn Medal while the White House gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He became a wildly popular figure on the speakers’ circuit, his religious faith and social conservatism popular with black churches and red-state audiences. Meanwhile, back in Germany all was not well with the twins. The boys could not do even basic functions. Benjamin would moan occasionally, but Patrick remained completely silent; he had had a setback in the Baltimore hospital when he choked on a piece of food, going without oxygen for a short time. Years later, neither boy could get around on his own or feed himself.

When Freizeit Revue caught up with Theresia in November 1993, she said her children’s brain damage had destroyed her marriage. Josef, before his death became an alcoholic, lost his job, cheated on her and spent all their money leaving them impoverished.

Theresia, also unable to care for the twins on her own, sent them to a home for disabled children, where they became wards of the state.

Carson would go on to perform hundreds of other difficult and impressive surgeries, including operating on babies inside the womb and removing large chunks of the brains of children plagued by repetitive seizures.

Carson has received a legion of honorary doctorate degrees and accolades and has sat on the boards of numerous business and education boards.

In 2000, the Library of Congress selected Carson as one of its “Living Legends.” The following year, CNN and Time magazine named Carson as one of the nation’s 20 foremost physicians and scientists.

On May 4, 2015, Carson launched his official bid for the Republican presidential nomination although he later pulled out of the race and threw his support behind incumbent Donald Trump. In 1975, he married Lacena “Candy” Rustin, whom he met at Yale.

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