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Breaking barriers: Meet the 9th Black Female Pediatric Surgeon in the US

On International Women's Day, we learn about Cook Children's newest surgeon and her recent recognition from the American Pediatric Surgical Association.

For most children, the game Operation was just for fun. For Kanika Bowen-Jallow, M.D., a pediatric surgeon at Cook Children’s, the game sparked a passion that would lead to a career and a distinct honor.

“I loved the game,” Dr. Bowen-Jallow recalled. “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.”

Just one month into her career at Cook Children’s, Dr. Bowen-Jallow was recently recognized by the American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA) as the 9th Black female pediatric surgeon in the U.S.

"When the Benjy Brooks committee informed me I’d be recognized for my contributions, I was on cloud nine," Dr. Bowen-Jallow recalled. "When APSA released the recognition to their social media account, it was a wonderful day for everyone to see all of my hard work."

Dr. Benjy Brooks was the first female pediatric surgeon from Texas. Dr. Bowen-Jallow identifies with Brooks' roots and was grateful to receive recognition in her honor. She says credits the recognition to hard work and perseverance.

Hard Work

Dr. Bowen-Jallow attained her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University and earned a medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch.

"I wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and then I desired to be a neurosurgeon," Dr. Bowen-Jallow remembered. "Right before I decided to go into pediatric surgery, I wanted to be a plastic surgeon."

She said becoming a pediatric surgeon was an accident, but it was the best accident that could've happened. She also believes it was worth enduring all 17 years of higher education.

"I'd committed to doing plastic surgery and was lining up interviews," she said. "As I signed up for my acting internship (AI), 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."

"Working with children is instant gratification," Dr. Bowen-Jallow explained. "If you perform a good operation, perfect your technique and pay attention to detail. Children will recover well."

Dr. Bowen-Jallow also expresses her love for children and admires their resiliency. She enjoys seeing children recover and giving parents peace of mind after an operation.

"It fuels my soul, knowing I’m doing what I’ve been called to do," she said.

Dr. Bowen-Jallow performs surgery on all things from the neck to the pelvis, excluding heart surgery. She also focuses on gastrointestinal surgery and trauma. In her practice, she enjoys researching pediatric health disparities and pediatric obesity. 

Breaking Barriers

Dr. Bowen is proud of her recent recognition. However, she believes it is essential to have minority representation in medicine; being the 9th Black female surgeon is still minimal. 

"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 explained.

Dr. Bowen-Jallow agrees culturally things have changed significantly, but there is still work to be done to get everyone on an equitable playing field. She recalls growing up, seeing very few women surgeons, and not ever seeing a Black pediatric surgeon before residency.

"It is important to have diversity within the medical system, so people know anything you put your mind to is attainable,” Dr. Bowen-Jallow said.

Dr. Bowen-Jallow advises young professionals who want to follow in her footsteps. 

"You have to know where you come from and where you're going. You must set yourself up for success," Dr. Bowen-Jallow explains.

However, for minorities, she believes the advice has to differ because of the adversities they face.

"There is implicit bias. It's not fair and it's not right," Dr. Bowen-Jallow said. "You always have to do better, know more, and perform better so you can stand out among your peers."

Dr. Bowen-Jallow recalls a time in high school where she was written off and told she would never be successful. She remembers that moment being the push she needed any time she wanted to give up.

"My calculus teacher told me I would never be a physician because I wasn't good at math," Dr. Bowen-Jallow said. "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."

Outside of the Operating Room

When Dr. Bowen-Jallow isn't in the operating room, she enjoys spending time with her husband of 14 years and her children, ages 3 and 5. She credits her husband for standing by her side through numerous years of education and being the family's backbone.

"I couldn't do any of this without the help of my husband," she said. "He has always supported my dreams and supports the late nights and early mornings on the job. My career wouldn't be possible without him."

The family recently relocated to Prosper, Texas, where Dr. Bowen-Jallow will practice full-time once the new Cook Children's Medical Center - Prosper opens next fall.

To decompress, she and her family enjoy running, biking, and other outdoor activities.

"Having young children of my own, I understand the trust and faith that my patients' families place in me every day," Dr. Bowen-Jallow expressed. "Knowing this, I adhere to the golden rule by treating every family the way I would want my own family treated." 

Operation is no longer a game for Dr. Bowen-Jallow. Changing the lives of children, one surgery at a time, is now her reality.