You can count the number of black female plastic surgeons on your fingers. Dr. Kanika Bowen-Jallow works as a surgeon at Cook Children’s Pediatric Surgery Center in Fort Worth, Texas. She recently received special recognition for becoming the ninth black female plastic surgeon from the American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA).
As a provider in a league of her own, she has a reputation for breaking barriers and inspiring others. After a long journey, Dr. Bowen-Jallow says this honor highlights the need for diversity in the medical system.
The Road to Pediatric Plastic Surgery
As a child, Dr. Bowen-Jallow remembers playing the game Operation, sparking an interest in medicine that would lead her on a path to success. “I loved the game. I would also play with my doctor kit, and listen to my parents’ heartbeats with the stethoscope and take their temperature with my tiny thermometer,” she recalled.
However, she didn’t set out to be a plastic surgeon. After earning her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University and a medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch, she wavered between several specialties before committing to reconstructive surgery. After 17 years of higher education, she was lining up interviews for her first job, but she describes her decision to work with children as an accident.
“As I signed up for my acting internship (AI) [clinical rotation], I wanted to do general surgery and was informed there were no more spots available. My only option was pediatric surgery, and within three days I’d changed my career path. I knew pediatric surgery was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
At Cook Children’s Medical Center, she operates on all parts of the body, except the heart. “Working with children is instant gratification. If you perform a good operation, perfect your technique, and pay attention to detail, children will recover well,” Dr. Bowen-Jallow added.
She’s also devoted her career to combating health disparities among kids, including childhood obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions that can reduce quality of life.
She says she’s come to admire children for their resiliency. There’s nothing like telling the family the procedure was a success. “It fuels my soul, knowing I’m doing what I’ve been called to do,” she said.
Increasing Diversity in the Medical Field
As proud as Dr. Bowen-Jallow is to join this elite group of women, she says the U.S. needs more than nine black female plastic surgeons. “I honestly had never thought about it before because there are so few of us, that’s always been my reality,” she recently told Good Morning America.
“There is a sense of sadness knowing how many others like me could have attained more, without implicit bias in the world; and if minority students weren’t underrepresented in medical school,” she commented.
She says seeing black surgeons of color sends the right message to patients, especially children looking for role models. “It is important to have diversity within the medical system, so people know anything you put your mind to is attainable,” she explained. “You have to know where you come from and where you’re going. You must set yourself up for success.”
However, Dr. Bowen-Jallow says minorities tend to face more obstacles in the field. She has advice for young people of color interested in pursuing a career in medicine. “There is implicit bias. It’s not fair and it’s not right. You always have to do better, know more, and perform better so you can stand out among your peers.”
She still remembers being dismissed in high school because of the color of her skin. “My calculus teacher told me I would never be a physician because I wasn’t good at math. That still sticks with me today. Once I got into medical school, I wrote that teacher a note and dropped it off at the school so he could realize the power of his words.”
As for the recognition, she’s proud to earn this unique distinction. “When APSA released the recognition to their social media account, it was a wonderful day for everyone to see all of my hard work,” she said.
She credits much of her success to the love and support of her family, including her husband and two young children. “Having young children of my own, I understand the trust and faith that my patients’ families place in me every day,” Dr. Bowen-Jallow explained. “Knowing this, I adhere to the golden rule by treating every family the way I would want my own family treated.”
The children at Cook Children’s Medical Center are in good hands with Dr. Bowen-Jallow on staff. We congratulate her on this amazing achievement.