Alvin Crawford’s work is an affair of the heart. The award-winning physician says he “fell in love with kids” when he chose pediatric orthopedics as his life’s work. Adults may have complicated motivations and desires; children, Crawford says, just want to be able to go out and play.
“I discovered if you help a child, you’ve made a friend for life,” says Crawford, and he has friends aplenty from his 30-year career at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where he is a professor and director of the Spine Center. It’s not just the quality of patients’ lives he improves–their grateful parents admire and respect this 1964 UT Health Science Center graduate, as well.
An early entry on Crawford’s list of honors and firsts came at UTHSC, where he was the medical school’s first African American graduate. His African American heritage also contributed to one of his most recent honors, the Morehouse College “Candle in the Dark” award.
Presented at a formal star-studded gala in Atlanta, the Candle award is a “singular” honor, Crawford says. Morehouse, a nationally recognized historically black liberal arts college, annually presents “Candle in the Dark” honors to those who’ve distinguished themselves in service, achievement, leadership, medicine, business, and entertainment. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Gordon Parks, and former UT football star Reggie White are former recipients.
“I attended the gala, and it was awesome,” Crawford says. “The famous singer Smokey Robinson was also an honoree. When I talked about growing up in the nineteen-fifties in the Orange Mound area of Memphis, Smokey Robinson chimed in that he had an aunt who lived in Orange Mound whom he visited when he was a child.”
Small world? Yes, but as a visiting professor, Crawford has moved far beyond Orange Mound to Canada, West Africa, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Brazil, Colombia, England, Belgium, Chile, Spain, Argentina, and Ireland.
He specializes in treating scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Scoliosis generally is discovered at puberty, a sensitive age for developing a sometimes-disfiguring condition, Crawford says. “Surgery to correct scoliosis can change a child almost totally,” he says, resulting in not only a physical fix but a self-image boost, as well. For the surgeon, the procedure is challenging, requiring both skill and dexterity to avoid damage to the spine and lungs.
Crawford is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on Âvideo-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, which allows surgeons to insert rods through small incisions to straighten the spine. Avoiding a large incision reduces pain and recovery time. He also is an authority on neurofibromatosis in children, a genetic disorder often associated with scoliosis.
Crawford is a prolific author, publishing more than 200 articles, 6 books, and 52 chapters. He developed a teaching module in pediatric orthopedics that is used throughout the United States and in 33 other countries. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Cerebral Palsy, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Surgeons.
Though his honors are many, Crawford says two commendations were particularly meaningful: the presidency of the Scoliosis Research Society and the 2007 diversity award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, which recognized him for the 40 (mostly international) fellows he has trained.
The inevitability of aging is nudging him to step back from doing surgery and to leave the delicate procedures to younger hands–“I don’t want to subject a child to the risk of aging.” He is mentoring other physicians to help them learn his techniques so they can carry on his work. “But I can’t stay away from orthopedics, so I will continue to do consultations.”
As he scales back his medical career, he is looking to expand upon his skills as a classical clarinetist. Already he plays in Cincinnati’s Queen City Orchestra and is in the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. But he’s motivated to achieve even more professional “high notes”: “I may have another career in music!”