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Wayne State University professor tapped to serve as a technical adviser and consultant in the Cuba Gooding Jr. film Gifted Hands

February 6, 2009

When the directors of the film Gifted Hands needed an expert to ensure realism in the operating room, they turned to the capable hands of a Wayne State University School of Medicine specialist.

 Gifted Hands

Sandeep Mittal, MD, a neurosurgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery, was tapped to serve as a technical adviser and consultant for the medical and surgical aspects portrayed in the film, which premiers at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 on Turner Network Television (TNT).

"I worked closely with the special effects people in California to get the props ready -- and realistic -- for the close-up scenes," said Dr. Mittal, who also co-directs the Neuro-Oncology Multi-Disciplinary Team at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. "I was quite amazed at the props they created based on the pictures I sent them from my surgical cases collection."

Gifted Hands is the story of world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon and Detroit native Ben Carson. Based on his book of the same title, the film traces Dr. Carson's rise from abject poverty in the slums of Detroit and the false assumptions that he was mentally retarded to his struggle to become a surgeon and director of pediatric surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is most noted for his 1987 successful operation to separate conjoined twins who were joined at the head. Such previous attempts had resulted in the deaths of either one or both twins. The surgeon has gone on to write three books and has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In the film, Dr. Carson is played by Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who Dr. Mittal met and worked with, both before and during filming.

After meeting with the film's directors and producers, Dr. Mittal said, Cuba Gooding Jr. came to his office for a few hours to receive a "crash course" in neurosurgery. "He is a very nice guy," Dr. Mittal said.

The surgeon said he was approached about advising the film makers by Emery King, chairman of the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council and director of marketing for the Detroit Medical Center.

Harper Hospital operating room nurse coordinator Carol Ciminelli helped secure personnel and equipment for filming, which took place in October at the old Detroit Riverview Hospital. The team endured three to four 12- to 14-hour days to complete the operating room scenes. "It was certainly a very interesting experience," Dr. Mittal said. "I have seen a preview of the edited operating room scenes -- I think they've done an excellent job."

In addition to advising the film's directors and having his own hands stand in for Gooding's in the surgical scene, Dr. Mittal was asked to assist in finding extras for the film. "Naturally, I thought that medical students, residents and neurosurgery nurses would be the most logical choice," he said. "Therefore I contacted some of the Wayne State University medical students that that I have mentored over the past few years to see if they would like to participate in the movie.

One of those students, Amy Buth, who had performed a summer research rotation with Dr. Mittal, jumped at the chance.

"What was interesting was that the director wanted real medical personnel during the surgery scenes so that it looked as real as possible," said Buth, a first-year MD/PhD student at the School of Medicine. "So there were a lot of nurses and surgical techs from Harper that gave their time to be on the set. I agree that having people play their real professions on film is more effective that trying to teach actors what to do."

Buth, who has not yet seen the film, does not have any speaking lines, but does assist Dr. Mittal in the surgical scenes. "I was used as an extra walking down the hallways or standing in the operating room," she explained. "I also am in a scene with Cuba Gooding Jr. I'm the assisting surgeon next to Cuba during a surgery when the patient wakes up. However, all of this occurs while I'm wearing a mask."

She also appears in a conference scene - without mask - playing the role of a plastic surgeon while Gooding's character discusses the separation of the twins. "It was nothing too major, but it was still super fun," Buth said. "I got to talk to Cuba a lot during the filming. I'm excited for this Saturday!"

Buth, who while in high school played the role of a frustrated piano student in the Grand Rapids Symphony production of Beethoven, said the filming was "fun, but stressful" because it took place right before exams. The tension, however, was worth it, she said, because she not only met Gooding, she also met a longtime role model, Dr. Carson, who visited the set during the filming of the surgical scenes.

"Dr. Carson has been a role model of mine since I was very young," she said. "I have all his books and have heard him speak many times before. In fact, I was able to have him sign one of my books during the filming. I also asked him various questions and for advice as a first-year medical student. He is so down to earth and puts God before anything else. It was such a wonderful experience being around him.

"Not only was it amazing to be a part of my childhood role model's movie, it was also a rewarding experience to able to work more closely with my current role model, Dr. Mittal, and the neurosurgery department," added. Buth, who plans to go into neurosurgery. "I have really enjoyed getting to know Dr. Mittal. He is a wonderful mentor and definitely another important figure in my life. He is extremely patient and always welcoming me to the OR. The stereotype is that surgeons are arrogant and have no time for interacting with others. It is completely opposite with this neurosurgery department. I have never met such wonderful physicians who are eager to teach."

Wayne State University is a premier institution of higher education offering more than 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 31,000 students.