Serving the Underprivileged: Alexa Irene Canady, MD, FAANS(L)
In 1984, Alexa Canady, MD, FAANS(L), made history as the first African American woman certified as a diplomat of the American Board of Neurological Surgery (ABNS). Her medical career began in the early 1970s, at a time when women comprised less than 10 percent of an average medical school’s graduating class. During this period, Congress wrestled with and eventually passed both the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, prohibiting discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal funds based on race and sex. Opportunities for women with respect to education were opening, albeit sluggishly, where they had not previously existed. During her first year of medical school, Dr. Canady fell in love with the nervous system and, in spite of discouragement from some of those surrounding her, she decided to pursue her passion of becoming a neurosurgeon. During this decade, the field of neurosurgery boasted only 22 board-certified neurosurgeons who were women, none of whom were African American. After completing an internship at Yale University (1975-1976) and residency at the University of Minnesota (1976-1981), Dr. Canady became both the first woman and the first African American to graduate from a neurosurgical training program in the state of Minnesota.
With hard work, diligence and a talent for navigating obstacles placed before her, Dr. Canady blazed a path towards achieving her goals. During her training, she was instantly attracted to the subspecialty of pediatric neurosurgery, appreciating its collaborative and positive environment as well as its sense of community. “I loved that you get to play while at work,” she remarks. She completed a pediatric neurosurgical fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from 1981 to 1982, and soon after was hired into the faculty of Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. In 1987, at the age of 36, she was named the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and charged with the development of a pediatric neurosurgical service line.
During this time, Detroit was a city at the height of turmoil, with widespread racial inequities and skyrocketing rates of poverty. Forty-seven percent of children under the age of 18 were living below the poverty line, and access to healthcare was of particular concern. Over the course of 15 years, Dr. Canady dedicated herself tirelessly to the development of an organized and well-developed pediatric neurosurgical program with the aim of offering the highest level of care to the children of the Detroit community. She is passionate about providing all patients access to excellent care, regardless of their means. Her approach is patient-centered, with a focus on providing care and resources to empower her patients and their families. She steadily raised money through fundraisers and by recruiting the support of charity organizations and, under her leadership, the division made food and monetary donations to financially disadvantaged patients. To inspire patients, she started support groups and was industrious in her advocacy for their needs to the broader community. In 2001, Child magazine ranked the Children’s Hospital of Michigan among the “10 Best Children’s Hospitals in America” and Dr. Canady as the hospital’s most outstanding representative physician.
Despite the challenges and mounting demands of providing care to an underserved community, Dr. Canady continued to advance the field of pediatric neurosurgery through her research. Her contributions, particularly in the management of hydrocephalus and dysraphism, are widespread and led to numerous publications and presentations. Dr. Canady educated and trained medical students and residents, creating a legacy of excellence in surgical skills, compassionate clinical care and innovation through research. She also directly and indirectly mentored countless others, including minority high school students throughout the Detroit region who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine.
In 2001, at the culmination of a successful career in Michigan, she retired to Pensacola, Fla., with her husband, a retired Naval officer. After a short period, however, she came out of retirement when it came to her attention that there was no dedicated pediatric neurosurgical service in her part of the Florida Panhandle. “Patients sometimes had to travel 400 miles to get specialty care,” she notes, and further describes how this was especially taxing on a financially disadvantaged population. So, back to service she went and over the course of eight years she created another successful pediatric neurosurgical service, eventually recruiting other pediatric neurosurgeons to secure its future.
Her passion and dedication to excellence have been recognized through many awards and honors, including induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and receipt of the American Women’s Medical Association’s President’s Award. Dr. Canady is a true pioneer who has devoted her distinguished career to caring for underprivileged children and breaking barriers that stymie access to healthcare. Her commitment, perseverance and exemplary service to her community are a true inspiration to the field of neurosurgery.
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