In the personal statement UNLV School of Medicine charter class student Sarah Grimley used in her family medicine residency applications, her passion for activism, for doing the right thing, is readily evident.
I have witnessed the difficulty that my transgender and gender-diverse loved ones experience in finding gender-affirming providers. Receiving gender-affirming treatments such as hormone replacement therapy or surgery encompasses only a small portion of the necessary care. Preventive care, family planning, and treatment of disease symptoms often end up neglected in this population. Many physicians refuse to see transgender patients. Offering an understanding of a wide spectrum of pathology, providing continuous care for patients throughout the entirety of their lives, caring for the patient and their family members, and recognizing and addressing the psychosocial issues in medicine with empathy and respect, are just a few of things that drive me to enter the field of family medicine with optimism and excitement.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Redlands in California, Grimley, who majored in biology and psychology, in 2019 became chief operating officer and chair of the board of directors of the Nevada Gender Affirming Healthcare Program (NGAHP), an organization she founded alongside UNLV Medicine plastic surgeon Dr. John Brosious. Part of her leadership of the program included the creation of a statewide collaboration of health care providers, activists, and advocates with the common goal of advancing access to quality health care for the gender-expansive population in Nevada.
“I like to be busy,” she said.
In 2017, the same year the School of Medicine opened, Grimley founded Qlub Med, which was created to provide professional and personal support to medical students, faculty, and staff who identify as LGBTQ+, the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others who identify outside male/female heterosexuality. Q can also mean questioning, Grimley noted.
Once considered a disparaging term, queer still is sometimes used negatively by those who dislike the LGBTQ+ community, Grimley said. But she says many in the LGBTQ+ community, including herself, have reclaimed the term queer because it’s not specific to sexual orientation or to gender identity but is an umbrella term that can encompass many people who identify outside binary male/female heterosexuality. She identifies as queer or pansexual. Pansexuality, she said, is sexual attraction, romantic love, or emotional attraction toward people of any sex or gender identity. It is not unusual, Grimley said, for people who identify as pansexual to refer to themselves as “gender blind,” asserting that gender and sex are irrelevant in determining when they will be sexually attracted to others.
Grimley’s LGBTQ+ advocacy work has not gone unnoticed. Last year the American Medical Association Foundation honored her with its Excellence in Medicine Award for her demonstration of “outstanding work, innovation, and leadership” in the LGBTQ+ community.
Born in Long Beach, California, but raised primarily in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Grimley was diagnosed during her early K-12 years with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The impulsivity that often is part of the condition played a large role in her getting expelled from eighth grade.
In college, she discovered she has severe dyslexia (difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols) as well as dyscalculia (a condition that makes it difficult to acquire math skills). Those conditions mean studying often takes much longer.
Forced into hiding
Medical conditions weren’t her only challenges prior to college. When officials at a private religious high school she attended found out she was in a relationship with someone who did not fit the male/female heterosexual mold, she was told she could either remove herself from the relationship or remove herself from school. “I knew that school was my last chance to get an education, so I hid my relationship. Surviving high school felt like an insurmountable task by itself. I never imagined making it to where I am today.”
With the help of her grandparents, a retired teacher and a retired physician, Grimley applied to college. “By some miracle, I was offered a (partial) scholarship to go to the University of Redlands.”
Once there, she blossomed.
“I learned that my voice mattered. I got involved in activism and advocacy, worked in the Pride and Women’s centers, organized protests, and used my voice to stand up for communities that I was always a part of and had always been silenced in. While my years growing up had taught me to listen, college taught me to speak.”
Grimley’s love for science began at home. Her father is an industrial designer.
“My family has always been very crafty, with both my mom and my dad getting involved in a range of different projects. We used to make carbon fiber helicopter propeller blades for drones in my living room. One of those drones that my dad helped design, the Draganflyer quad-rotor, was the first public-service drone to save a human life in 2013 by locating someone that both ground and helicopter rescue teams couldn’t find. The Draganflyer is now part of the National Air and Space Museum.”
As a child, Grimley marveled at how physicians, with their expertise, could often alleviate the fears of people dealing with medical problems. “I didn’t know much about medicine, but I just knew that I wanted to be a doctor. Growing up, everyone told me that I would never make it to medical school but I couldn’t stop trying. It was the only thing I could imagine for myself.”
A new school
Not long after graduating from Redlands, Grimley moved to Las Vegas, where her grandparents had retired. While working at Seven Hills Behavioral Health Hospital in Henderson as a mental health technician, she signed up for the medical school admissions test in 2016. She later found out that UNLV was going to start a medical school the following year. “I didn’t actually know that the school was opening until I was applying and was so excited to learn about it. I chose this school because I wanted to be a part of creating a new school. I loved the idea of helping create this school from the beginning.”
She found the early part of medical school the most challenging.
“The first part of medical school, where we’re mostly in the classroom and trying to drink information from a fire hose, was undeniably difficult. Getting through it was definitely worth it, though, to get to clinical rotations and being able to see and work with patients. What I’ve enjoyed the absolute most is working with people in the hospital and clinics. Hearing their stories, meeting them where they’re at, and working with them to develop a plan that works within their world to help them heal and improve their health is so satisfying.”
During her fourth year of medical school, Grimley was quick to volunteer to take calls from Las Vegans who wanted appointments for the UNLV Medicine COVID-19 testing program. Many of the people calling in, she recalled, were scared, close to panic. “I think sometimes people just need someone to listen to them. I was able to connect some people with resources — like food banks. I spent many, many hours on many days answering calls and talking to people, reassuring them. I wanted, like so many of our students, to help.”
As she awaits the March 19 Match Day for residency positions, Grimley recalls that the interviews she’s had with residency programs across the country haven’t been easy to judge.
“Online interviews have been so challenging. It’s really hard to get a feel for a program when it’s in a virtual format. When you ask residents at your interview why they chose that program, they all say, ‘The people and culture of the program,’ but it’s impossible to get a feel for that online.”
Grimley has not shied away from talking about her work on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community during her interviews for residency positions.
“I don’t want to go somewhere that doesn’t allow me to be myself.”