Note: This story was originally published in the Winter | Spring 2019 edition of Pharmacy Perspectives. Since its publication, Dr. Sandra Leal was named president-elect of the American Pharmacists Association.
When Sandra Leal was growing up in Nogales, Arizona, her family depended on pharmacists across the border in Mexico for medical care. Today, Dr. Leal,PharmD, MPH, FAPhA, CDE, has devoted most of her career to helping underserved, low-income patients access quality health care from pharmacists.
“My parents only spoke Spanish. There was a language barrier in Arizona when accessing health care providers,” says Dr. Leal. “The pharmacists in Mexico spoke Spanish and always knew what bug was going around. We would walk across the border to Mexico to talk with the pharmacists and walk out with a treatment that we could understand and that was affordable,” she says.
Dr. Leal is the first member of her family to attend college and received a scholarship to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. She went to CU in Denver for a summer American Cancer Society research internship and was recruited to attend the University of Colorado’s CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Dr. Leal was also awarded a prestigious diversity scholarship from the Skaggs family’s ALSAM Foundation. The philanthropist endowed several full-tuition scholarships for students from underrepresented groups.
“I knew I was going to be a pharmacist in the 11th grade, but it was hard work and I had multiple jobs all the way through school,” says Dr. Leal, who graduated from CU Pharmacy as class valedictorian in 1999. “It is always amazing to me that I was able to accomplish what I did.”
After graduating, Dr. Leal did a pharmacy residency at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Tucson, Arizona and later a fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2001, Dr. Leal joined the El Rio Community Health Center, which serves the medical and dental needs of more than 100,000 people. She became the El Rio’s clinical pharmacy director and medical director of their Broadway clinic director, worked with the center’s providers to help patients manage their diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic illnesses.
“My favorite type of work was when I could talk with people. My experiences with patients made me proud of my career choice,” says Dr. Leal. “Patients from my days at El Rio still call me to thank me.” Dr. Leal also became the first clinical pharmacist in Arizona to earn limited prescribing rights to help patients with chronic conditions under collaborative practice agreements.
“Being a pharmacist has evolved so much,” says Dr. Leal, who is the president-elect of the American Pharmacists Association. “Pharmacists aren’t just dispensing medications. Pharmacists are one of the most trusted positions in medicine. People believe what we say and they can come to us, talk with us and get help.”
In 2015, Dr. Leal joined SinfoníaRx, a health care company in Tucson that helps patients with chronic illnesses manage their health and medications. She was recently promoted to CEO of SinfoníaRx. “Her story is one about the ‘American Dream’ from childhood to CEO,” says CU Pharmacy Dean Ralph Altiere. “Sandra is a true asset to the field of pharmacy and her story will inspire others. We were fortunate that she chose us to help her get started on her remarkable journey.”