The ‘sky is the limit’ for Tiffany Grace Perry ’01

Perry is the first female neurosurgeon at renowned Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and views Elon as the launchpad for her 20-year journey in the field of health care.

Perry during one of her trips to Uganda with a patient. As a 17-year-old, Tiffany Grace Perry ’01 knew exactly what she wanted from her college experience. She wanted to be noted by professors for her thoughts in class and, most of all, to make genuine connections with those around her.

A native of Haw River, North Carolina, she only applied to two colleges: a large state school and then-Elon College. She was accepted into the honors program at both schools and received invitations to tour both campuses ahead of her senior year.

When she arrived to visit the large state school, she wasn’t greeted with the cordial nature she expected. Instead, the receptionist insisted she provide a social security number which she did not have on hand.

Perry looked at her mother and said, “I think I’m done here. I don’t need to go on this tour. I have no interest in going to a place that doesn’t even want to know my name.”

Her experience at Elon just a few weeks later went significantly better.

When she arrived at the admissions office, Professor Dan Wright, who was then the director of Elon’s Honors Program, recognized her from her admissions photo and offered a warm greeting to her and her mother.

“This is what I wanted,” Perry said. “I wanted for someone to notice if I wasn’t in class, for someone to know my name and say, ‘Hello.’ Elon was a completely different experience.”

That “completely different experience” would lay the foundation for her exceptional career in medicine that has seen her serve in trailblazing roles, and instilled in her a lifelong love of learning and a sense of service.

“I have learned you can do anything to which you set your mind,” she said. “The sky really is the limit.”

‘Learning to think and make decisions on my own’

At Elon, she had found all the elements of the college experience she was looking for. She started as a music major, later added biology as a second major and then paired the two with a minor in Spanish. Perry made sure to get the most out of her college experience.

The Honors Fellow studied in Costa Rica for a winter term and in London for a full semester. As if her rigorous academic commitments weren’t enough, Perry was active as a member of Camerata, the classical choir group, and a representative for Alpha Omicron Pi sorority to the Panhellenic Society. She graduated in 2001 with a transcript full of academic accomplishments and engaged learning experiences.

“Elon was the first place where I learned to think and make decisions on my own,” Perry said. “I did not always make the right decisions, but I think that’s a part of growing up. Elon was that first time in my life when I was able to do that. I would go back and do my four years again…and I would do everything I did all over again.”

Following her time at Elon, Perry embarked on a 12-year journey into neurosurgery — four years of medical school and another seven in residency at UNC-Chapel Hill. She completed two spine fellowships at Duke University and post-residency work at the Cleveland Clinic, where she remained as a faculty member for two years.

In 2015, she was recruited to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, one of the country’s best hospitals, and would become its first female neurosurgeon. Considering the dynamics of her residencies, her time at the Cleveland Clinic, and the cosmopolitan nature of L.A., it was shocking for Perry to learn she was the first woman in the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai.

Once settled in her role at the hospital, she began to serve as a mentor for women considering the field of neurosurgery — a space underrepresented by women. While she looks at her achievement with modesty, a natural occurrence after years of dedication and hard work, she understands and accepts her role as a mentor for the next generation of women neurosurgeons.

Perry, right, and her daughter in a selfie together.

“I’m ecstatic for any woman who wants to follow this same path. It takes passion, work ethic, dedication and sacrifice. But those sacrifices pale in comparison to the fact that every day I wake up and do something that I genuinely love,” Perry said.

Among the many lessons Perry took away from her time at Elon, being a lifelong learner is the one that resonated most. Perry is currently in her second year of pursuing a Master of Public Health degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, a pursuit she has undertaken while continuing her full-time neurosurgery practice. She regularly plays the piano and is guiding her daughter, a rising junior, on college visits, the same as her mother did for her more than 20 years ago.

As if that isn’t enough, she designs home furniture and participates in ultra-marathon trail races. This multitasking nature and the constant journey of pushing the limits of what she can do trace back to her four years at Elon.

A transformational experience

She has excelled in the field of medicine, though she hadn’t initially planned to work in health care, and has been “willing to follow whatever doors were open” as she has progressed in her career. Those open doors have provided her with life-changing experiences, including a 2010 trip to Uganda to spend a week operating and training local doctors.

The trip itself was a special opportunity and also served as a pivotal moment in her life. Her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two weeks before Perry left for Uganda. “I remember that time so well,” Perry said.

Perry with a child during one of her trips to Uganda.

She had planned to cancel the trip and stay to support her mother. But with the encouragement of her mother and the reassurance of her mom’s surgeon, she went on the trip. That decision proved to be one of the most important in her life, one that bettered her professionally and personally. When she returned from Uganda, her mom underwent surgery and treatment and is cancer-free today.

“Uganda was this place where for me it was recognizing that life goes on in spite of everything around us. Regardless of what I do for a living, I’m still a human being — a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend.”  The experience of going to Uganda was transformational, and Perry wanted to return to Uganda for the same purpose — helping those with a lack of access to health care resources.

Since arriving at Cedars-Sinai in 2015, she has spearheaded and planned an annual trip each January for a group to go to Uganda. The trips will continue this upcoming January after a hiatus due to the pandemic.

“I always return from Uganda reminded of how fortunate we are here to have our health care system. The healthcare we have is better than the absolute best care people can get in other parts of the world. We’re so blessed,” Perry once said.