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Retired Dr. Ben Carson greets Elijah Stevenson, 12, a seventh grader at Hope Academy with Regina Clark, Hope Academy executive director on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in Greensboro, N.C. 

Updated 11:25 p.m.

GREENSBORO — Before becoming a regular on Fox News, before delivering sold-out speeches on Christian character education, before creating a presidential exploratory committee ...

Dr. Ben Carson saved the life of a 9-year-old Reidsville girl.

How?

He removed the left half of her brain.

In Greensboro on Tuesday for a fundraiser, the retired neurosurgeon smiled broadly when a News & Record reporter reminded him of Nicole Pyrtle, an early recipient of one of his hemispherectomies.

In 1992, Pyrtle started suffering violent seizures that wouldn’t respond to drugs and often continued for days.

Today, she is 28, engaged and living with her parents in Rockingham County — walking, talking, living her life, albeit with some limitations.

Carson said Tuesday that he remembers Pyrtle, whom he operated on at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1996.

He spent 13 hours on Pyrtle’s hemispherectomy, a procedure he performed on about 100 children during his career.

“It’s wonderful to be able to intervene, particularly in the lives of children, to give them longevity and quality of life,” said Carson, 63.

He is better known today for his books and speeches touting his Bible-based values than the delicate brain procedures he once performed.

His notoriety makes him a popular public speaker, which is why he was in Greensboro.

On Tuesday morning, he spoke to a group of students from Guilford County Schools. Later he went to Greensboro’s Hope Academy, a Christian school for grades 5-8.

Then Tuesday night, he spoke to a packed house at the Carolina Theatre. The event raised money for his Carson Scholars Fund and Guilford County’s Say Yes to Education initiative.

A favorite among Christian conservatives, he is being urged to run as a Republican candidate for president. He formed a presidential exploratory committee last month.

He’ll announce his intentions May 4 in his hometown of Detroit.

So will he or won’t he?

It mattered naught during at Hope Academy.

The students, most members of families living at or below the poverty line, had more practical questions.

How did he do it?

How, they asked, did the product of an illiterate, single mother from inner-city Detroit rise from a violent adolescent to an Ivy League-educated neurosurgeon?

It was familiar ground for Carson, whose books and speeches chronicle his rags-to-riches story.

His success, he told the students, is a combination of his mother’s devotion and God’s divine intervention.

He also chose not to be a victim, he said, a recurring theme in his speeches and books.

“All of that was a decision I made (to say), ‘Just because I live in this horrible environment in Detroit doesn’t mean I can’t get an education,’ ” he told them.

“When God fixes your problems, he doesn’t just give you a paint job. He really fixes it.”

Carson toured the school at the request of Elijah Stevenson, 12, a seventh-grader and budding research scientist.

Carson gained his first taste of fame in 1987, when he led a team of surgeons that successfully separated twins joined at the head.

Years later, he revived the practice of hemispherectomies, a drastic and risky response to seizures that won’t respond to any other treatment.

Pyrtle’s condition fell into that category.

The News & Record chronicled her story in the mid-1990s — before and after Carson’s surgery.

Pyrtle’s condition was diagnosed as Rasmussen’s encephalitis, a rare disease in which the immune system attacks and kills brain cells.

The seizures began in her right cheek, leg and arm. They escalated into projectile vomiting and “drop” seizures that brought her to the floor so fast no one could catch her.

One seizure lasted four days.

Carson removed the left side of her brain a few weeks after that seizure.

Without the surgery, Pyrtle — then a second-grader — would have faced either coma or death.

Children are the only practical candidates for the procedures, since their remaining hemisphere is young enough to compensate for the lost side.

Cerebral fluid fills the space of the missing half.

Nicole Pyrtle said during a phone interview Tuesday that she has no memory of her ordeal, but she credits Carson with saving her life.

She still suffers from two or three small seizures a day, but they’re neither as painful nor as violent as before.

Even Carson marvels — as a layperson might — at the recoveries made by Pyrtle and his other hemispherectomy patients.

One just graduated from college first in his class, Carson said Tuesday, his usually soft voice rising with excitement.

“And he only has half a brain.”


Posted 1:12 p.m.

GREENSBORO — A good education, a good attitude and a strong faith are the tools to overcoming obstacles, Dr. Ben Carson told a small group of Christian school students this morning.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and possible conservative presidential candidate, met with the 47 students at Hope Academy, a private school for grades 5 through 8. About 80 percent of the students live at or below the poverty level – something Carson told them he could relate to.

Raised in inner-city Detroit by a single mother who couldn’t read, Carson grew up to become one of the best known pediatric neurosurgeons in the country. He urged the students today not to squander their opportunity for a good education.

“Just because I lived in this horrible environment in Detroit doesn’t mean I couldn’t get a good education,” he told them.

Carson will speak tonight to a sold-out crowd at the Carolina Theatre at 7:15 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Guilford County’s Say Yes to Education and his Carson Scholars Fund.

Contact Margaret Moffett at (336) 373-7031, and follow @MargaretMoffett on Twitter.

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