Nigerian-born Idara Edem has always had a flair for knowing more about the complex nature of the brain. When she was in high school, she was aware of the fact that she wanted to pursue a career that involved studying one of the body’s most complex organs.
While talking about what influenced her decision to study the brain Dr. Edem said: “It (the brain influences our lives in so many ways. It controls everything but we know so little about it. Once I decided (studying the brain) was something I wanted, I wasn’t going to let any barriers affect me. You are always going to have people who think you can’t do something regardless of how good your grades are or what your interests are.”
Today, Dr. Edem, who moved to Canada at the age of 13 has surmounted many obstacles to making medical history. As things stand, she might become Canada’s first Black female neurosurgeon.
Though she can’t declare it with 100 percent certainty, research seems to back it up. When her sister, Faith, got in touch with some Canadian medical and neuroscience organizations, they told her they were not aware of other Black female Canadian neurosurgeons but could not officially ascertain it because they have no racial record of neurosurgeons.
Becoming a female neurosurgeon in Canada – not to talk of being a Black neurosurgeon – is uncommon. According to a CBC report in December 2019, Canada had 333 practicing neurosurgeons out of which only 36 were women. United States’ first Black female neurosurgeon in was Dr. Alexa Canady, who started practicing medicine in 1981. Dr. Edem has worked with neurosurgeons that have been working since the 80s but none of them could recall the existence of a Black female neurosurgeon in Canada.
Dr. Edem has mixed feelings concerning her (probable) historic achievement. She is a firm believer of being a role model and holds the view that her story will motivate other Black Canadians and women in particular to become doctors and surgeons. But being the first also makes her a bit sad.
She said: “The more important question is why am I the first? What are the structural barriers and systemic issues that have prevented others over the years from making this a goal?”
She highlighted many systematic, social and financial barriers to medical education that she encountered before applying to medical school. For instance, a lot of Black youth grow up without been treated or mentored by a Black doctor. This lack of representation discourages many blacks and makes them ignore medicine as an attainable career, therefore they choose other fields of study when they get to university.
Dr. Edem, who happened to be one of the 3 black students in her medical class, said: “Mentorship and sponsorship are key at this time. Due to a lack of representation and support, many Black learners don’t even get to the stage of applying for medical school.”
She is hopeful that more Black and female Canadians will join her on health care front line. She is making effort to motivate others by giving career talks to groups like Association of Black Aspiring Physicians and guiding colleagues that need help in navigating the peculiar challenges of being a Black and/or female surgeon.
She said: “Twenty years down the line, I want to make sure neurosurgeons look more like the patient populations they represent – more diverse and more multicultural.”
Dr. Edem currently practices in Michigan but hopes to go back to practice in Canada soon.