October 26, 2020, 2:28 pm David Mitchell -- The people of Phoenix should consider themselves fortunate that Sarah Coles, M.D., didn’t turn out to be a better saxophone player.
“I play it infrequently,” said Coles, who graduated from the University of Arizona with undergraduate degrees – and honors – in music as well as molecular and cellular biology in 2007. “I still really love it, but I’m not very good at it.”
It would be hard to imagine when Coles might find the time to practice. The assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix Family Medicine Residency was recently named chair of the AAFP’s Commission on Health of the Public and Science. She also has joined the collection of researchers and clinicians dubbed the “Nerdy Girls,” who provide the public with evidence-based information about COVID-19 through the Dear Pandemic website and social media.
Coles also sits on the boards of both the Arizona AFP and the Arizona Medical Association, and she serves on the influenza work group for the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. That’s a pretty packed curriculum vitae for a once-aspiring saxophonist.
Coles arrived in Tucson in 2002 unsure of her future and embarked on “a diverse double major.”
“I was vaguely interested in medicine,” she said, “but it wasn’t a passion of mine.”
That changed when Coles’ mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer during an ER visit precipitated by neurologic symptoms. The diagnosis was traumatic for the family not only because of her mother’s prognosis but because of how the news was delivered.
“This busy, overwhelmed physician told us really bluntly that she had cancer,” Coles said. “I realized how detrimental a doctor can be to someone’s health and well-being and to their family.”
Coles’ mother ultimately lost a two-year battle with the disease, but along the way she had “a great family physician and team of oncologists” who made an impression on the college student.
“We had a group of people who really cared about her and us,” Coles said. “I wanted to be that person who is there for people not only in their most difficult times but also for their successes and is part of that family’s story.”
Coles moved to Phoenix to attend the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, stayed for residency and joined the faculty after graduation. Her first stint on the AAFP Commission on Health of the Public and Science came during residency, when her program director, Steve Brown, M.D., was its chair.
“These are people who value evidence-based medicine and the social determinants of health,” said Coles, whose second stint on the commission started in 2017. “I felt surprised and proud to get that opportunity.”
Coles credited Brown with allowing her to take on so many opportunities.
“My boss and the university believe community engagement and leadership are part of my job,” said Coles, who also serves as a team physician for a local high school. “They really support me.”
Coles and her husband, Tyler, work with Brown on the popular AFP Podcast. Tyler, a computer engineer, is the audio engineer, while Sarah serves as an editor, fact-checker and occasional host. She helps residents prepare the show’s scripts.
“It can be scary to put your name on something and put it out there for thousands of people,” she said.
Coles is doing just that with the Nerdy Girls, a group of a dozen researchers and clinicians who have more than 40,000 followers on social media. The women post multiple times a day, answering questions from the public on COVID-related topics such as masks, testing and mental health.
“I’m proud of it,” she said. “It’s a collection of scientists and clinicians who are brilliant, and they have power behind their voice because they are a strong group of women.”
Coles said she works up to 80 hours a week, but she’s not complaining.
“It energizes me and brings me joy,” she said. “I have opportunities and love to be involved in so many things. I have supportive people around me and also people who tell me to stop. I have a hard time saying no, even when I should. That’s a skill I’m working on.”
Coles is teaching the students and residents she works with to say yes when they can.
“I really want residents and students to know that leadership and community engagement are roles for family physicians,” she said. “We’re trained to do this. We have a powerful voice, and we should use it.”