Pediatric Spine Surgeon Hits All the Right Notes

Oprah Winfrey. Bill Cosby. Muhammad Ali. Sidney Poitier. Alvin Crawford, MD. If that last name seems out of place with the others, guess again.

Oprah Winfrey. Bill Cosby. Muhammad Ali. Sidney Poitier. Alvin Crawford, MD.

If that last name seems out of place with the others, guess again. Crawford, an internationally known pediatric spine surgeon, and co-director of the Crawford Spine Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, belongs right alongside those other household names as a recipient of the Morehouse College “Candle in the Dark” award. The prestigious award is presented annually to an individual who has distinguished him or herself in service, achievement, leadership, medicine, business and entertainment. But Crawford keeps it all in perspective.

“When someone is honored, it doesn’t mean you go off and sort of advertise that,” he explains. “It gives you the responsibility that, while you may have done something that made people very happy and think a lot of you, it means that you have to try to improve that. That’s the responsibility it gives you once you reach that level.”

And Crawford has embraced that responsibility.

Challenging road

Before medicine was even a thought in his mind, Crawford was an accomplished clarinetist. As a freshman in college he performed at many affairs, and with several band directors from his hometown of Orange Mound, TN nearing retirement, his future seemed secure. The problem was that Crawford had already decided that he didn’t want to spend his life as a high school band director.

“I had always wanted to be a studio musician,” Crawford recalls. “I thought I was pretty good. But I didn’t know how many studio gigs there would be. So when I realized that [being a studio musician] might not be in my future, I looked for a challenge.”

And he found one. Crawford became the first African-American to enroll in medical school at the University of Tennessee, an event that took place at the height of the civil rights movement in the US There were struggles, to be sure, but Crawford persevered.

“You can’t let racism and discrimination determine your values, because when you do that then you are going to have a miserable life,” he says.

Embracing pediatrics

Crawford joined the staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1977 as the director of orthopedic surgery, and held the position for 29 years. He is the founding director of the Crawford Spine Center at the medical center, and in 2004 was honored with the dedication of the Crawford Chair in Pediatric Orthopedics, and a subsequent chair in spine surgery.

Why the focus on pediatric spine surgery? Crawford says that when you help a child, you make a friend for life.

“You meet the parents, you get to meet the child, and you sort of bond with them,” he says. “You don’t see children with a spinal deformity and say okay, we’re going to the operating room, because with young children there are options. We can place them in bracing, which works on occasion, and if it doesn’t work, then it’s on to surgery. Today I see former patients who have been in college and graduated, and they remember me as the doctor they saw every time they went to the office. They write to me from college and when their children are born. It is a bond for life.”

Giving back

Crawford has journeyed far from his Orange Mound roots, traveling to, among other countries, West Africa, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Spain, and Argentina. He has brought his teachings to many Third World countries, and also brought back residents, fellows, and attending surgeons to learn in the US.

“You have to give back,” says Crawford, who has 56 of his “children,” many of whom have come from all over the globe, under his tutelage for anywhere from 6 months to a year. He sees them on a daily basis, bonds with them, and it helps him remember there are other cultures, other philosophies, and other levels of need.

He sees those levels of need first hand when he travels to countries that don’t have the “high ticket technologies” that are considered routine in the US. Being able to share his knowledge and medical expertise in countries with diminished resources is a gift.

“I think you can’t give enough,” Crawford says. “Something I learned from one of my mentors is that everything you do to help someone else actually helps you. It’s amazing how that comes back to you. And it’s not a financial thing; finances don’t come into it. It’s just the satisfaction of what you’ve been able to do for another human. And what I tell everyone is to make sure that if I can do this, be of this type of assistance to them, to make sure that when they are providing education resource and teaching, that they may be able to help someone who looks like me.”

In music as in life

Crawford laughs as he says he may one day have a second career in music. But in reality that second career is already underway, playing clarinet in Cincinnati’s Queen City Orchestra, as well as the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. And he compares the 2 avocations, pointing out that music can be just as challenging as medicine.

“In an operating room there’s the physician, a scrub nurse, a circulating nurse, an x-ray technician, and a physical therapist after the surgery,” he explains. “In music, there’s the woodwind section, the brass—and everybody has to play in time; has to work together and stay in tune.”

There’s an old joke about one man stopping another on the street in New York City and asking, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” Crawford still does that, putting in no less than an hour every day on his clarinet.

Meanwhile, the accolades for his medical career continue to pour in. In May 2014, the Scoliosis Research Society announced that Crawford was one of 2 physicians being presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“It’s extremely rewarding, almost humbling,” Crawford says. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to have been selected to receive that award.”