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Undergrad, medical students race against cancer

by Anne Eldridge, UofL Pediatrics, special to UofL Today last modified Apr 30, 2012 09:50 AM

Three chunky medals strung on wide orange ribbons hang from a peg in University of Louisville sophomore Erica Shelley’s Fern Creek bedroom, keepsakes of three marathons and reminders of her own longer, harder race.

Undergrad, medical students race against cancer

Erica Shelley, right, and Megan Bedolla, left.

Shelley has been competing with cancer—Hodgkin’s lymphoma—since her diagnosis in 2007 at age 15. While she has had setbacks over the last five years, Shelley hasn’t let the disease get the best of her. Despite 15 rounds of chemotherapy, a course of radiation therapy and a bone marrow transplant, Shelley was chosen a Governor’s Scholar in her junior year and a Mayor’s Outstanding Senior in 2010. She graduated high school with a 4.0 grade point average and is maintaining her perfect GPA at UofL as she works her way toward her goal of becoming a physical therapist.

For the past four years, UofL medical students have paid tribute to the grit and determination of Shelley and other UofL Pediatrics cancer and blood disorders patients by running the Kentucky Derby Marathon in their honor as part of the Medals4Mettle program based in Indianapolis.

Pediatric oncologist Alexa Cheerva, MD, considers it a positive experience for patients and students alike.

“This program celebrates mettle, or courage, a character trait that sustains a marathon runner, a medical student and all of our patients and their families,” she said.

The doctors-in-training give their medals to their patient partners and spend time with them online and in person. The students believe the experience helps them reach beyond the classroom to learn about critical illness. Many of the runners find that it also helps them be more accepting of the rigors of medical school.

“It’s an opportunity for the students to see what it’s like from the perspective of the patient and it’s good for the patients to know there are people thinking about them,” Shelley said.

A three-year program participant, each of Shelley’s Derby Marathon medals marks a leg of her journey. The petite brunette received her first medal in the hospital. Chemotherapy made her too weak and vulnerable to other peoples’ germs to attend the 2010 awards ceremony so her medical student runner brought the prize to her later.

She received her second Derby Marathon medal last year. She was able to attend the award ceremony but, because her cancer had relapsed, she had a bone marrow transplant a few weeks later.

This year’s Kentucky Derby Marathon marks the close of her recovery from the transplant. Her cancer is in remission. She is slowly regaining energy and is back to her UofL classes full time. Shelley joined nearly 100 other patients at the Medals4Mettle award ceremony Sunday, April 29, on Belknap Campus, receiving her 2012 medal from first-year medical student Megan Bedolla.

“Erica is really a driven person,” Bedolla said. “There’s obviously a lot more to her than a diagnosis or statistics. She has aspirations and goals and is really driven to accomplish them.”

The UofL Medals4Mettle program began four years ago with 13 medical students. It was the brain child of first-year medical student Riley Jones, who is about to graduate and begin a surgery residency. He’s grown the program to nearly 100 student runners and now is turning the reigns over to Meagan Holtgrave, a rising second-year medical student who expects Medals4Mettle to be a formative experience for another generation of doctors-in-training.

“A good percentage of this year’s runners are finishing their first-year of medical school like me. Many had never done a marathon before. We were moved by the idea of running in the name of a child and a patient and wanted to give it a try,” she said.

“If you don’t have firsthand knowledge of childhood cancer, it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t cry, it doesn’t have a family. Medals4Mettle takes diseases like cancer out of the textbook and makes them real for these students. That’s why this program has grown so dramatically,” said Salvatore Bertolone, MD, chief of the UofL Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Blood and Marrow Transplant.

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