Participants in 2016 UofL Medals4Mettle
Participants in 2016 UofL Medals4Mettle. Photo by Steve Kinnett.

Second-year University of Louisville medical student Taylor Hodge showed 9-year-old Carra the ribbon and medal she had just earned by running the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon. Hodge then placed the medal around Carra’s neck saying, “Your courage is my inspiration.”

Taylor Hodge with running buddy, Carra
Taylor Hodge with running buddy, Carra

Hodge earned the medal for completing a 13.1-mile test of courage and endurance. Carra, a patient with the UofL Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation, is running a race of another kind. She was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, a rare type of brain tumor, in 2009 and has been battling the disease ever since. Hodge presented the medal in recognition of Carra’s courage and determination in battling her disease.

“While we may be giving these patients our race medals, their mettle gives us so much more in return,” Hodge said. “I know my future medical practice will be better because of the courage and resilience I have witnessed in Carra and her family.”

Hodge and 86 other University of Louisville medical students ran the Derby Festival races on April 30 and presented their medals to pediatric patients battling cancer or a blood disease in a ceremony at the Kosair Charities Clinical and Translational Research Building on UofL’s health sciences campus. It was the eighth year UofL students participated in Medals4Mettle (M4M), an international organization in which endurance athletes donate their awards to critically ill individuals in honor of their courage in the face of life-threatening illnesses.

The UofL chapter of M4M is unique in that the students spend time with the patients before the race, and often run for the same patient year after year. The relationships with their buddies give the students a more intimate understanding of how cancer and life-threatening diseases affect the children and their families, adding a personal dimension to their training to become physicians.

“Medals4Mettle bridges the art and science of medicine. We teach the students about B- and T-cell leukemia, but through this program, they learn the diseases also have names like Mark, Mary and Juliette, that they laugh and they cry and live in families that are affected by the challenges faced in fighting these illnesses,” said Salvatore J. Bertolone Jr., MD, retired professor and previous chief of pediatric oncology and hematology at UofL, who has supported UofL M4M since its inception.

“In a lot of our training, especially in the third year, we are learning what kind of questions to ask. What is the history I need from this patient right now to make the decision that I need to make and get on to the next one,” said Samantha Heidrich, a third-year student and M4M participant. “Through my experience with my buddy Damarys and her family, I have learned there are so many other questions I could and should be asking that will help me make those decisions. What is mom’s work schedule? Can they get care for her little brother when they are coming to the clinic? It’s made me think about the whole patient and the whole family and how we care for them as a unit.”

Heidrich, who has been a distance runner since she was a child, says training for the race also improves her personal wellbeing.

“I have built some really good relationships with my classmates through training. It was a way to build camaraderie, it was a way to release yourself from the study environment for a while, which is a wellness aspect that is sometimes overlooked in our medical education,” Heidrich said.

Fourth-year student McKenzie Vater, who has been involved in the program throughout her medical school training, wrote a scholarly article about UofL M4M that was published in the January issue of the Medical Student Research Journal. She surveyed previous participants about the program’s value in medical education and patient relationships. Her research showed that the students and the patients and their families benefited from the interaction.

 “Getting to know and understand the patient as a whole person allows for increased confidence in a physician,” Vater wrote in the article. “This relationship can provide the foundation for patients’ trust, allowing for improvement in patient satisfaction and health care outcomes overall.”

After graduating from UofL School of Medicine this month, Vater will begin her residency training in pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, where she hopes to help establish an M4M chapter similar to the one at UofL.

Betty Coffman
Betty Coffman is a Communications Coordinator focused on research and innovation at UofL. A UofL alumna and Louisville native, she served as a writer and editor for local and national publications and as an account services coordinator and copywriter for marketing and design firms prior to joining UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing.