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 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.