Since 1958, Baylor College of Medicine’s neurosurgeon residency has been created as an accredited program, but not until 61 years later that a Black woman completed the program. Dr. Venita Simpson created history as the first to do so at the Texas institution recently.
According to U.S. News & World Report, the neurosurgery department, which is housed at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, is one of Baylor’s highly reputable departments in overall scores and in the nation.
Dr. Simpson, however, faced a bit of an obstacle in getting into the school once she discovered she wanted to study medicine.
“When I knew I wanted to enroll in medical school, my high school guidance counselor told me to be realistic,” she said. “Even though I had a 4.0 CGPA, she still recommended another student of privilege for the scholarship I was applying for. When I applied to Neurosurgery I did not match, but I dug my heels in, got back on the grind and matched the second time. Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do. God is always in control and has His plan for you far greater than you could imagine if you keep the faith.”
Attending medical school has been a life-long dream for Simpson, who said her own experience led her down that career path.
“I was motivated to go into medicine when I was 7-years-old after I had surgery,” she reminisced. “I was just surprised at all the equipment in the hospital. I fell in love with Neurosurgery after witnessing Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease and movement disorders and how life-changing a seamless placement of electrodes in the brain could alter and improve someone’s life.”
Although Simpson made history at Baylor, it was two other black surgeons who had created history before her that helped pave the way for the Texas transplant to follow in their footsteps.
Dr. Alexa Canady’s residency at the University of Minnesota in 1976 made her become the first female Black neurosurgery resident in the nation. When she wrapped up her residency in 1981, she recreated history again as America’s first female Black neurosurgeon. And with Simpson becoming a neurosurgeon too, there is still progress to be made as Black women only consists less than 1 percent of the of neurosurgeons across the nation.
But Simpson, who is a lieutenant commander in the Navy, where she’s served since 2006, remains inspired by Canady, as well as incumbent HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson. While he currently heads the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he made history in 1987 when he first performed successful surgery to separate conjoined twins who were connected at the back of the head.
“I met Dr. Ben Carson numerous times while I was still a medical student at Georgetown, and he was still staff at John Hopkins,” Simpson said. “He gave me a great deal of encouragement, but moreover Dr. Alexa Canady resonated with me because not only was she black, she was a woman. In a field dominated by white men, it can be intimidating, but she persevered and I definitely have pulled strength from her.”
Since Simpson finished her seven-year residency at Baylor, it was reported that she has also wrapped her Enfolded Complex Spine Fellowship this year. Next, she’ll go east to Portsmouth, Virginia, in the Navy to practice neurosurgery.