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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — March 2023: Dr. Alexa Canady

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan to Dr. Clinton Canady, Jr. and Elizabeth Canady. Her father was a dentist and her mother was an educator and a civic leader. Dr. Canady's parents taught her about the importance of education and hard work as a child.

Dr. Canady and her younger brother were the only two African-American students in their elementary school, and unfortunately, Dr. Canady consistently faced prejudice while in school. Dr. Canady’s parents knew she was bright and had her sit for an intelligence test while she was in elementary school. Her IQ test scores were extremely high, which contradicted the average grades she was earning at school. Her parents later discovered that Dr. Canady’s teacher had been switching her test scores with a white student’s to conceal her intelligence. Ultimately, Dr. Canady graduated with honors from Lansing Sexton High School in 1967 and was nominated as a National Achievement Scholar.

Dr. Canady went on to attend the University of Michigan where she received her bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1971. Her time at the University of Michigan was not without its struggles; she almost dropped out of college at one point due to, in her words, a “crisis of confidence.” But she persisted and found her passion: medicine. She would then go on to receive her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975, where she graduated cum laude.

Although she initially had an interest in internal medicine, Dr. Canady decided on neurosurgery after falling in love with neurology during her first two years of medical school. She settled on this specialty against the recommendations of some of her professors. She went on to become a surgical intern at the Yale-New Haven Hospital from 1975–1976. Although an exceptional student, she still faced prejudice and discriminatory comments as she was both the first African American and the first female intern in the program. On her first day as an intern, she was told that she "must be our new equal-opportunity package.” This discrimination notwithstanding, she was later voted one of the top residents by her fellow physicians.

After completing her internship, Dr. Canady went to the University of Minnesota for her residency, becoming the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States. In 1982, after finishing residency, Dr. Canady decided to specialize as a pediatric neurosurgeon, becoming the first African American and the first woman to do so. She chose pediatrics because of her love for the children in the pediatric ward during her residency. She stated, “it never ceased to amaze me how happy the children were.” As a patient-focused surgeon, she was known to play videogames with her pediatric patients and form relationships with each of them. She became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan in 1987 and held the position until her partial retirement in 2001. During her time as Chief, she specialized in congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors.

Although she has stated that she was not focused on the history she was making, once in retirement she realized the significance of her accomplishments and what they meant for other African Americans and women in medicine. She is famously quoted as saying, “The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible.”


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