Alexa Irene Canady

By NNPA Newswire

(NNPA Newswire) – It was during a health careers summer program at the University of Michigan that Alexa Irene Canady (b. 1950) decided to pursue medicine, a decision that would lead the trailblazer to become the first female African-American neurosurgeon in the United States.

At the time of her life-changing decision, Canady was a junior pursuing an undergraduate degree in zoology. During the summer, she worked in a genetics lab and attended a genetic counseling clinic, and she became convinced that continuing her studies at the university’s medical school was what she wanted.

“I fell in love with medicine,” she said.

And she never regretted her decision.

Initially, Canady thought her future would be in internal medicine, but after being introduced to neurosurgery, she changed her path. 

Not everyone supported her decision, however. Some of Canady’s advisors attempted to discourage her from following through on her plans. And she experienced difficulties in obtaining an internship. 

But those roadblocks didn’t impede her dream. After graduating cum laude from medical school (1975), she joined Yale-New Haven Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn., as a surgical intern. When her internship ended, she moved on to the University of Minnesota. There, she served as a resident of the university’s department of neurosurgery, making her the first Black female neurosurgery resident in the United States. When her residency ended in 1981, she became the nation’s first Black female neurosurgeon.

“The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible,” Canady is famously quoted as saying.

Canady admits that she came close to dropping out of college because she “had a crisis of confidence.” But, she pressed on, knowing there was a chance to win a minority scholarship in medicine. 

And there also were external challenges. During her medical internship, for example, despite her qualifications and high GPA, Canady could not escape prejudices and micro-aggressive comments.

On her first day at Yale-New Haven, Canady recalls tending to a patient when a hospital administrator passed by and commented: “Oh, you must be our new equal-opportunity package.”

The tables turned when, a few years later at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (where she trained for her specialization in pediatric neurosurgery), her fellow physicians voted her one of the top residents.

At the University of Minnesota, Canady also had to convince the neurosurgery chairman that she was “not a risk to drop out or be fired, a disaster in a program where there are only one or two residents per year. I was the first African American woman . Along with that, my other greatest obstacle was convincing myself that someone would give me a chance to work as a neurosurgeon.”

During her 22-year career as a neurosurgeon, Canady worked with young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases. Most were 10 years old or younger.

She earned accolades for her patient-centered approach to medicine. And, under her care as director of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the department was viewed as one of the best in the country.

Read more about Canady’s journey to overcoming racial prejudice, patriarchy, and sexism in “Dr Alexa Irene Canady: The Incredible Story of the First Black Woman to Become a Neurosurgeon” by Isabel Carson.

A version of this article originally appeared in Post News Group.

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