In nearly all of his speeches on the campaign trail, Ben Carson sketches the following scene: When a four-year-old boy was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985, doctors across the city of Atlanta told his parents to prepare for the end. But the couple, armed with what Carson calls “an unshakeable faith,” journeyed with their son from Georgia to Johns Hopkins University’s Pediatric Neurosurgery Center in Baltimore.
There, after troubling scans and an unsuccessful operation, even Carson warned the couple there was little hope for their son. In Carson’s telling, the parents responded firmly, “The Lord is going to heal him, and he’s going to use you to do it.” Carson went on to remove the tumor. He calls the event a “revelation.”
The patient, Christopher Pylant, calls it a “miracle.”
Now 34 years old and living in Lakeland, Fla., Pylant has devoted his life to God. A graduate of Southeastern University with a degree in practical theology, he ministers to Christian congregations and youth groups across Florida. Two years ago, he published a book, along with his late father, Neal Pylant, called A Touch from Heaven: A Little Boy’s Story of Surgery, Heaven and Healing. Carson wrote the foreword.
“I feel very honored that Dr. Carson tells my story,” Pylant says. “I feel blessed to be a part of his life, to have even a small portion of the impact on him that he’s had on me.” Since his surgery 30 years ago, Pylant says the two have maintained a “great rapport.” When he graduated high school, Pylant says he sent Carson a photograph that Carson later kept on the desk in his office.
A few months ago, Carson e-mailed Pylant to tell him personally that God had called him to run for president. Pylant’s story, and Carson’s use of it, illustrates one part of Carson’s appeal to voters: He talks about how his faith has affected his life and career in language so personal that those who hear him can’t help but be touched by it. And in doing so, he’s also able to showcase his unique accomplishments: At the Fox News debate last month, tucked quietly alongside his competitors, Carson reminded voters that, with the help of God, he was the only man on the stage to have separated Siamese twins.
Pylant says it’s difficult to imagine that anyone close to him might become president of the United States, but that with Carson, the suggestion seems natural. Pylant says the man who saved his life is uniquely equipped to take on the “issues that matter” — religious freedom, the rise of ISIS, and the debt crisis.
“He wants to make America great again.” Pylant says, unintentionally borrowing Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. He pauses. “I don’t mean that in the way that Donald Trump does. . . . I don’t mean he’s just concerned about bringing wealth and status to America.” Carson, he says, “wants to rebuild the foundations of this country” and to “restore its principles,” fostering a spiritual and moral renewal.
Carson talked about Pylant’s story publicly long before he started delivering stump speeches. In his 1996 book Think Big, he recites a thornier version of the tale than the one heard by audiences at venues like the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to the Majority Conference this spring and on the soapbox at the Iowa State Fair last month.
He admits to telling the Pylants there was no hope for their son after an initial, unsuccessful attempt to biopsy the tumor. He recalls thinking the couple were “religious fanatics,” and counseling them to resign themselves to the hopelessness of the situation. “Maybe you shouldn’t question the reason for these things,” he told them.
The Pylants urged him to do more scans, and he obliged. That’s when he discovered that the tumor was in fact outside of the brain stem, something he had not initially seen through the gray mass. Armed with the knowledge that the tumor was operable after all, he was able to successfully remove it.
#share#Carson writes in Think Big of how the Pylant case led him to understand that, though he called himself a Christian physician, he placed more faith in his own hands than God’s. “It was as if I had prayed for God’s help but either did not expect it, did not appreciate it when it was at work, or unconsciously denied the divine intervention,” he writes. “It has become abundantly clear to me that the Lord was letting me know through that experience with Christopher Pylant that He is there for me, available to be used if I call on Him. I have called on God much more frequently since that experience.”
What survives 30 years later, Pylant says, is not the pain of his illness nor the trauma of undergoing two operations, but rather Carson’s warmth and reassurance. “I don’t remember much other than this one moment, when he came into my room and sat next to me and my parents on the bed and touched my shoulder. There was a kindness and gentleness in his eyes that has never left me,” he says.
“God will equip him with all he needs to complete whatever task is in front of him. My life is the greatest witness I have to that.”
Pylant’s last checkup at Johns Hopkins was two decades ago. He says he is “healthy and strong,” and needs no medication or regular medical care. “I’m thriving,” he says. “God has been sustaining me for many years.”
If anything will keep Carson from the White House, Pylant says, it’s his humble spirit. Indeed, in comparisons with the other anti-establishment candidates in the race, some have predicted that Carson’s soft-spokenness would prove his downfall. Yet his numbers continue to rise. In the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, he sits in second place behind Donald Trump, with 13.5 percent of the vote.
“It’s true that he doesn’t have the political experience,” Pylant says. “But even if he’s not willing to say it, he definitely has all the capabilities. And God will equip him with all he needs to complete whatever task is in front of him.
“My life is the greatest witness I have to that.”
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.