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Alexa Canady

Photo of Dr. Canady and her brother as children

I grew up in the ‘50s. White gloves ...hats ...stockings. We lived just outside Lansing, Michigan, an auto-manufacturing town. My brother and I stuck out as the only black kids at our rural elementary school. My mother frequently gave us her famous "tokens are for spending" talk. She said, "Let them make you the token — so what if you're the token black girl. Take that token and spend it." My mother taught me not to care what other people thought.

The summer after second grade, my grandmother came to stay with us. She was a school teacher and was taking a course in psychological testing at the local college. I became a guinea pig for testing conducted by her class. After I scored exceptionally well on an exam, my grandmother's professor asked for further testing. I sat at a desk at the front of the classroom while her professor showed me pictures and numbers and asked me questions until my brain felt numb. A week later, the professor called our house during dinner. My mom came back to the table looking puzzled. "He wants to know if Alexa is in any special programs — he says her intelligence testing is off the charts." She looked at my father. "That's odd," my father said. "Her scores at school are just average."

My parents didn't tell me until years later that they discovered my teacher had lied to the school about my test results. She had given my scores to a white girl in my class.

here were about 25 women in my medical school class of 200. Five or six were African-American. The first time a professor slipped a picture of a naked woman in with the lecture slides, all the women gasped. It quickly became apparent that we were in a man's world. Professors frequently overlooked the women's raised hands, and most of the prestigious clubs and societies were all-male. The white women in my class were shocked and outraged that they weren't being taken seriously. I'd hear them complain between classes about how unfair it was. It was the first time they had felt pushed aside. But I just put my head down and worked harder. I was used to being disregarded.

During my first two years of medical school, I fell in love with neurology. I was intrigued by everything about the human brain — its intricate structures; the billions of neurons constantly receiving, interpreting and relaying sensory information; the immeasurable capabilities of the most complex and mysterious organ in the human body. And then I fell head over heels for neurosurgery.

I'll never forget the first time I saw a surgeon open a human skull. I watched, mesmerized, as he traversed the brain, his tools steering gracefully through delicate tissues and over tiny nerves and vessels. I was a goner.

I had fallen in love with the most intensely male of all the medical specialties. And I had a big problem. There were a very limited number of women surgeons at that time, and only a handful in neurosurgery. As a black woman, how was I going to get into a residency program — in a field in which schools only admit one or two residents a year? It didn't matter that I was at the top of my class. So I devised a strategy. I became a neurosurgery groupie. I inhaled every publication and article I could get my hands on, and I attended every conference and seminar. I went to meetings and asked questions just to make myself known.

I finally got a meeting with the chairman of neurosurgery at Michigan. I was thrilled. I had two interviews with him before I went home to Lansing for the winter holiday. At home over the break, I was so anxious and excited I could hardly eat. Two days before Christmas, I got a phone call from the chairman. He asked me to drive back to school for a third interview on Christmas Eve. I arrived jittery with excitement. He sat me down in his office and, for the next two hours, he rattled off name after name of former residents whom he'd fired from the program. I was stunned. I suddenly realized that I was only there because he'd been pressured into interviewing me.

I picked up the pieces and buckled down. I broadened my search. After months of interviews around the country, I finally got the news I had been waiting for. I was accepted at Yale for a surgical internship. I was on my way.

Surgery is a thousand steps. At first, they just let you close the skin. Then they let you open the skin. Then they let you make the burr holes that open up the skull. You go through it step by step — always on your toes, constantly looking for the unexpected. People talk about anatomy as if it's a fixed thing. But it's not. Surgeons have a unique appreciation for the vast variation in human anatomy. An artery may be in one place in one person and another place in someone else. Once you get into the brain or spinal cord, the problem can be worse than you thought. It's not uncommon to encounter something that makes it impossible to continue as planned.

By the time you complete your first operation you've already done each of the steps hundreds and hundreds of times. One day you realize they just never stopped you. You did the entire thing. It's the greatest feeling in the world.

New mothers often say that the moment they first hold their babies, they know they were put on earth to be mothers. I never had children of my own, but I understand that instinctive sense of purpose. After training in general surgery at Yale, I was accepted to a neurosurgical residency at the University of Minnesota. There, I found my true calling — in the pediatric ward. Unlike adult patients, kids don't know the role of the neurosurgeon. They treat you like any other person. It never ceased to amaze me how happy the children were — even the ones who had spent much of their lives sick and in hospitals. The most rewarding part is that most of the time you can make them better. And when you can't make them better, you help them and their families adjust. Over time, you learn how to process the inevitable losses. But you never stop struggling to avoid the heartbreak.

Photo of Dr. Canady a patient

After 30 years as a surgeon, I retired this past January. Looking back, what stands out in my memory are the special relationships I had with my young patients. The hours we spent cross-legged on the floor playing video games, and the sound of their laughter floating through the hospital hallways. The children taught me so much — about living in the moment with tremendous courage and grace despite serious and often terminal illnesses. I took care of some children for 15 to 20 years. I watched them grow up. I got up in the middle of the night to care for them. I cared for every single one of them as if they were my own.

graduated with a B.S. from the University of Michigan in 1971 — one year before the passage of Title IX. The law opened the doors for girls and women to pursue the sciences and mathematics and has helped increase their numbers in these fields. In 1970, less than 10 percent of all medical students were women. By 1975, that number had jumped to just over 20 percent. Women now make up nearly half of all medical students. Canady finished medical school in 1975, and in 1981, she became the first African-American woman neurosurgeon in the United States. From 1987 to 2001, Canady was chief of neurosurgery at Children's Hospital of Michigan. After more than 30 years as a pediatric neurosurgeon, she retired in January 2012.

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