Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Alisahah Cole always knew she wanted to be a doctor. She treated her stuffed animals as patients and listened for their heartbeats with a Fisher-Price stethoscope. But she was disappointed when her kindergarten teacher suggested she should think about becoming a model or basketball player instead.
When Cole’s mother heard this, she marched in to the teacher and made it clear that her daughter could be a doctor if she wanted. With backing from her mother and future teachers, Cole pursued her dream, attending science camps and shadowing a doctor during high school.
“I didn’t come from a community that was producing a lot of doctors,” Cole said. “But my mom really instilled in me that anything was possible.”
Not only did Cole, now 38, become a physician, but she was the 2005 “Outstanding Intern of the Year” during her first year of training at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Eight years later, she was back at CMC overseeing other trainees as one of the youngest directors of the family medicine residency program. And recently, she took on new responsibilities as the first medical director for community health for Carolinas HealthCare System. She has authority over programs at 13 hospitals and 10 counties in North Carolina and South Carolina.
“She’s an all-star in the making,” said Gene Woods, who took over as CEO of Carolinas HealthCare eight months ago.
After meeting Cole and hearing her passion for improving access to health care for low-income and under-served communities, Woods spoke to Dr. Roger Ray, the system’s chief physician executive, about mentoring Cole and promoting her to the new, higher profile spot.
“She cares very deeply about under-served areas in this community,” Woods said. “She brings a blend of pragmatism and scientific analysis to the work.”
In addition, Cole has emerged as a leader – with Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown of Novant Health – of the recently announced, unprecedented collaboration between Charlotte’s two hospital systems to expand health care access in six communities.
Woods and Novant Health CEO Carl Armato came up with the idea, but “Alisahah and Ophelia took the ball and ran with it,” Woods said.
Cole’s talents at collaboration and teamwork have impressed many who’ve worked with her. “She’s dynamic,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County health director. “She communicates well. She’s a go-getter, for lack of a better word. She’s really a champion for primary care.”
Committed to giving back
Cole credits her mother, Carolyn Cooke, for inspiring her commitment to serving others. At 6, she served meals to the homeless on Thanksgiving Day and visited nursing homes to sing carols and play games during Christmas season.
“That’s just kind of how I grew up in a family that was always giving back,” Cole said.
That commitment led her to choose family medicine after medical school, and when interviewing residency programs around the country, she “fell in love with” CMC’s “urban track” program, based at Biddle Point clinic off Beatties Ford Road. The primarily African American patients and many female African American doctors made her feel at home.
“I just felt like that was the patient population I was called to serve,” she said. “And it was refreshing to see other physicians who looked like me. …This was an office dedicated to helping the under-served, but it didn’t feel like an under-served clinic. All the resources were available to every single patient.”
Dr. Jessica Schorr Saxe, who spent much of her career at Biddle Point, recalled supervising Cole as a first-year resident when she was evaluating a patient with a complicated medical history. “She, on her own, totally outlined the correct management” of the condition, Saxe said. “It was far beyond what would have been expected at her level.”
‘Won the town over’
As a National Health Service Corps Scholar, Cole promised to work for two years in an under-served area after her training. She assumed she would find work in an urban setting. But Bill Leonard, then president of Wallace Thomson Hospital in rural Union, S.C., persuaded her otherwise.
The Union hospital, then a struggling institution about 65 miles southwest of Charlotte, was under management by Carolinas HealthCare at the time, and Leonard spoke with CMC residents about working there. When he learned about Cole’s scholarship obligation, he invited her to become one of six family doctors in Union, then “the 18th most distressed county in the entire United States.”
“It was not an easy assignment,” Leonard said. But Cole agreed, moving to Union with her then-husband and their two-year-old son, who was born during Cole’s second year of residency.
“She quickly won the town over,” Leonard said. “She had a very busy clinic right off the bat. There was very little time to go slow. She handled that with unbelievable skill and determination.”
While in Union, Cole also worked with medical students from the University of South Carolina and nursing students from Clemson University and realized she loved teaching. So, in 2011, when she learned that her former urban track director at Biddle Point was leaving, Cole applied and got the job.
Young residency leader
Two years later, at 34, Cole was promoted to director of CMC’s entire family medicine residency program, overseeing some of the same faculty doctors who had trained her.
During her tenure, Cole added a requirement that all family medicine residents spend at least one month at Carolinas HealthCare’s family practice in Anson County so they could get a taste of rural medicine.
Leonard, now president of the Carolinas HealthCare System University, said Cole’s years in Union have served her well. “When you’re one of six family medicine doctors in a town like that, you get tremendous medical experience,” he said. “All the residents she has trained since have really benefited from that.”
Plescia, Mecklenburg’s health director, who started the Biddle Point clinic in the 1990s, also has praise for Cole’s work. “For some people, becoming a residency director would be the pinnacle of their career,” he said. “She’s already done that and is moving on to even more ambitious and substantive leadership roles.”
‘A dream job’
Cole’s new role at Carolinas HealthCare had its beginnings in late 2015, when former Carolinas HealthCare CEO Michael Tarwater formed a steering committee on community health that identified five areas of concern – including obesity, tobacco use and lack of access to health care – in the 10-county region.
Cole became physician leader of the group, and after Woods replaced Tarwater, she met with the new CEO to talk about the project. “For us to be successful, we have to partner with everyone, and that includes our friendly cousins across the street,’ ” she told Woods, referring to longtime rival, Novant Health.
Cole had been meeting with Garmon-Brown, the Novant physician, for nearly a year about finding ways to collaborate. Coincidentally, Woods and Armato, the Novant CEO, had been talking about the same thing.
So in August, the two doctors and two CEOs met to talk about what a collaboration would look like. They agreed to focus on six communities that have been identified by the county as “public health priority areas” because of characteristics such as high rates of diabetes, cancer and asthma.
On Nov. 28, Cole was among the panelists at a community meeting where the groundbreaking Carolinas HealthCare-Novant collaboration was unveiled. By that time, she’d been promoted to her new job as system medical director for community health.
By the end of next year, she expects to have increased access to primary care and mental health services in the target communities. It could be a clinic in a new building or expansion of an existing free clinic. It could be mobile health clinics or the availability of virtual visits via digital technology. “We’re really trying to flesh that out,” she said.
What’s next for Cole?
She said she hasn’t planned that far ahead.
“This really is a dream job for me.”
DR. ALISAHAH JANELL COLE
Family: Two sons, Auvin, 11, and Roman, 7.
Background: Born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised by a single mother, Carolyn Cooke. Graduated from Case Western Reserve University with bachelor’s degrees in both music and biology, May 2000. Graduated from Wright State University medical school, June 2004. Completed CMC family medicine residency, 2007. Won 2005 Bryant L. Galusha Award for Outstanding Intern of the Year at CMC.
Employment history: Family physician in Union, S.C., 2007-2011. Director of urban track for CMC family medicine residency, 2011-2013. Director of the family medicine residency, 2013-2016. Carolinas HealthCare System medical director for community health, Sept. 2016 to present.
Interests: Cole began playing classical piano at 5 and performed competitively for 12 years. As a high school senior, she won the National Federation of Music Clubs President’s Cup. “I mainly play for stress relief now,” she said.