Fall 2016
Student Adds to Her Definition of Family

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Sara Coffee with her personal and professional family

All in the Family

Sara Coffee, center, surrounded by her extended personal and professional family. Front row: Husband Nick Robertson, step-daughter McKayla; Carl Sievert, Ph.D., professor of physiology and cell biology. Back row: Friends Michelle Granstrom, Stephanie Rogers and Danielle Hayes. Photo by James Rutter.

Story by James Rutter

Ask around campus and you will find many students and faculty who can attest to the high caliber of individuals studying and teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. But perhaps none of them have a more compelling story than Sara Coffee.

Reno native Sara Coffee, Class of 2017, saw her definition of family expand during her first year at UNR Med. Due to unexpected happenings, it expanded from her blood relatives to an extended family comprised of fellow medical students and the faculty who teach them.

Family has long been important to Coffee and a key reason she chose to pursue her undergraduate, graduate and medical degrees at Nevada. Little did she know that in her time at the School of Medicine, her meaning of the word ‘family' would be forever changed.

It came as a sudden and unwelcomed shock: during her first year at UNR Med, Coffee's father, 63, had a heart attack.

"It was really strange, because, growing up, my dad was always healthy and my mom was always sick," she said.

Coffee went to visit her father in the hospital the day before his coronary bypass surgery was scheduled to take place. He had been stable in the hospital for a week, but then the unthinkable happened.

"He wanted me to take a bunch of his things home, because he didn't want them left in the hospital," Coffee said.

"He bent over to give me his bag, and he went into cardiac arrest. It was really hard because they tried to do CPR. I didn't leave the room because I didn't want to leave him. He didn't make it."

The unexpected passing of a parent was already very difficult for Coffee, but initially it was even more paralyzing because of her studies.

"This happened during block four, which was really heavily anatomy based," she said. "Every time I went to the anatomy lab, he was all I could see. I ended up missing three weeks."

Coffee didn't know how she was going to get through the block, and yet she ended up passing it with honors. She attributes this success to the amazing support she received from her professors and peers at the School of Medicine.

"Dr. Sievert and Dr. Bardin met with me outside of class to go over everything I'd missed, so that I could pass," Coffee said. "All of my med school friends were so amazing, they gave me their notes and flowers, and cards, and one of them made me dinner for a week. They were all just so wonderful."

Coffee believes that she would have never been able to pass that block had it not been for her friends and professors, something she believes stands out from the many benefits people usually cite when discussing UNR Med.

"I really like this school for many of the reasons other people probably say: the small class sizes and the incredibly smart professors," Coffee said.

"But I also feel like this place is unique, because in a lot of med schools, I think there's a sense of competition between students, and it's not like that here. Here, you know if you're sick or struggling with something, someone will help you, whether that's with notes or actually meeting with you."

Coffee has paid it forward and has played a role herself in this larger support system by joining an informal peer-support mentorship program.

"A bunch of us fourth-year students signed up to run sessions where we meet with third-year students just to ask them how things are going and if they have any concerns," Coffee said.

"I think it's really important because that transition from the classroom to the real world can be difficult."

As Coffee looks toward the future, it appears bright. She is married with a step-daughter, whom she refers to as her own, and has another child on the way. After graduation she wants to stay in Reno, hopefully with a residency in internal medicine.

As she completes her final year of undergraduate medical education, she looks back on the school that shaped her and thinks of it fondly.

"Everyone here is just so supportive. We really are a family," Coffee said.