DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Dr. Trinitia Cannon is working to make the medical field more diverse. Her journey to becoming a surgeon was filled with obstacles. She wants to eliminate those obstacles for young people of color who dream of working in medicine.
In the operating room at Duke, Cannon performs complex surgeries on patients with cancers of the head and neck, but the connections she makes go beyond the OR.
“I think that my patients really trust me and that means a lot,” she said.
Cannon can relate when patients are struggling or dealing with challenges that seem impossible.
“I was born to two alcoholic parents,” she said. “My father died at 47 from pancreatic cancer.”
When she became pregnant at 15, she was told to give up on her dreams for her future.
“People were basically telling me at the time I ruined my life. I would be nothing,” she recalled.
Despite what she heard from others, she didn’t give up. She got a job at McDonald’s and paid a babysitter so she could graduate from high school.
She relied on public assistance when her son was young.
“It helped me feed my family at the time, provided me with rent, housing, and a roof over my head,” she said, adding she felt the sting of judgement, even as she worked toward a medical career.
“People who looked at you when you walked into the welfare office. Looked at you like you were a second-class citizen,” she remembered. “When I applied to nursing school, I was declined. I was told I didn’t have a big enough support system.”
She said that was “just one more person putting one more obstacle in my way, and another way for me to show them wrong.”
Cannon attended community college and applied to nursing school again. This time she got in. She worked as a nurse while continuing to pursue her dream of medical school, but throughout her education, she faced challenges many students don’t.
“Most medical students really do a lot of volunteer work. They really do a lot in the community, they write papers, they publish, and I was a mom,” she said.
Without the same connections or opportunities many medical students have, she had to advocate for herself.
Now, she is living her dream of working as a surgeon at Duke.
“I love what I do every single, solitary day,” she said.
She has also become an advocate for diversity in medicine with a hope that other young people of color won’t face the same obstacles she did in starting her medical career.
“As a young Black kid growing up in a small town, I had never seen a doctor who looked like me,” she said.
When it comes to getting all patients the care they need, she said diversity can truly save lives but breaking down barriers and increasing opportunities must start as early.
As this generation of children dreams of their future, she hopes her success can serve as an example.
“Yes, I am Black. Yes, I am a woman,” she said. “Yes, I am a surgeon, and it’s doable.”