From the time Kanika Bowen-Jallow got a Playskool Doctor kit at 6 years old, she knew she wanted to become a doctor. She was determined to reach her goal, but it wasn’t always easy. As a Black woman, she didn’t look like most aspiring physicians—in fact, Bowen-Jallow had never even encountered a Black doctor until she was in medical school herself.
Today, Bowen-Jallow is one of only a handful of Black female pediatric surgeons in the United States—fulfilling her dream as a surgeon at Cook Children's Pediatric Surgery Center in Prosper, Texas. Children’s Hospitals Today caught up with Bowen-Jallow to discuss her journey, the challenges she’s overcome and the next generation of Black doctors.
Where did you find inspiration on your path to becoming a doctor?
The seed was planted by my parents—not necessarily in terms of being a physician, but they taught us we can be whatever we want to be. They brought us books that had lawyers and doctors, but they were brown. Even though we weren't seeing that in society, through books we were able to see the possibilities.
When they saw I had an interest in medicine, they bought me all the books that had to do with the life of an ED physician, the life of a surgeon, the life of a neurosurgeon. They were reading level appropriate, but they were a gateway to see what could really be—I credit my parents in providing that foundation.
How important is it to you that you are now in a position to be a role model for children of color?
It's something I take very seriously. I love my job and embrace the opportunity to talk about it and how it is to be a person of color doing my job. From the time I was in medical school to today, I never turn down requests to speak to undergraduates, high schoolers or kids doing Bible study during the summertime about being a Black woman pediatric surgeon.
I feel like that is paying it forward. My parents always taught me that to whom much is given, much is expected. All these little things are going to push our younger generation to really see what's attainable. To have them see what's possible when they haven't seen it before is something that drives me.
Kanika Bowen-Jallow, M.D.,
is a surgeon at Cook Children's
Pediatric Surgery Center.
What kind of challenges have you faced as a Black woman in pediatric surgery?
We talk about conscious and unconscious biases, and they still exist today.
Conscious bias is very easy to identify. It's there, it's in your face, it's not blinded in any way, shape or form. For me, the biggest issue when I’ve faced instances of overt racism is that I have almost always been the only Black person in my general surgery or med school classes. This is way before there was talk of being anti-racist or where people felt they could speak up. Things are changing now, but that just wasn't the time I grew up in.
Unconscious bias is a bigger issue, and one that continues for the people coming after me. The example I always give is once I walked into a patient’s room with my white coat on and clearly looking like a physician. Before I could even say I was there to give a consent form, the woman looked at my face and said, "Can you come back later to change the sheets?" That is unconscious bias. She only saw my skin color, didn't take in my full uniform and thought that's the level of job I would have. That's still very pervasive today.
A 2020 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) shows only 3% of U.S. doctors—and just 8% of medical school students—identify as Black or African American. What can be done to increase those numbers?
It starts with reaching children when they're young—it needs to start extremely young. The vision to be something you have never seen before doesn't happen in high school; there's already a trajectory that has happened by the time they get to high school, so we must start before then. We must start with education and exposure.
We should try to have some more diversity when it comes to bringing in accountants, doctors and lawyers to talk to kids and go a little bit further to find a person of color. That doesn't just benefit the child in the class who's a person of color, it benefits the entire class.
We need to awaken the eyes of everyone. It's not just for minorities, it's for the entire population. It is important when we talk about how to get more people of color into the system, it really has to do with having sponsors and mentors who realize there is an issue and realize that 3% is not good enough. It requires everyone to step in and say, "Yes, I want to help—this is important."