Medals4Mettle is an Indianapolis-based international charity that connects athletes from all walks of life with critically ill patients. The Louisville chapter, which is based at the UofL School of Medicine, has a unique approach to the program. The med students don’t just give their Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon medals to strangers; they meet their running buddies and learn more about the up-close-and-personal side of critical illness.

 This year, 75 med students were paired with children being treated by UofL pediatric specialists. The patients range in age from 18 months to young adult and have been diagnosed with conditions such as brain cancer, bone cancer, hemophilia, leukemia and sickle cell disease.

 “The M4M program adds a different type of learning to the medical school experience,” said Meagan Holtgrave, a third-year medical student and UofL Medals4Mettle president. “We get to witness firsthand how the diseases we read about affect families in the real world. Building long-lasting relationships with these brave and spirited kids is a life-changing experience and we will be better people and physicians because of it.”

“UofL has lead the way with Medals4Mettle medical school chapters around the country and some of their graduates have gone on to become Medals4Mettle leaders as they advance into their careers,” said Steve Isenberg, M.D., founder of the charity said.

Four-year-old DustiRae Dean collected her second Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon medal at Saturday’s medal ceremony on the UofL Health Sciences Center campus. It was her third marathon medal from second-year medical student Lee Richardson. He also gave her the medal earned at the Walt Disney World Marathon this past January. She likes to wear her medals while racing through the house yelling, “I’m a champion!”

DustiRae was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011. She was treated with chemotherapy for two and one-half years and will soon be six months post treatment.

Richardson and the Dean family stay in touch in and out of race season, following each other on Facebook and exchanging messages and texts about DustiRae’s latest exploits. It’s a friendship that helps them both.

“Spending an afternoon with the Deans in a nonprofessional setting helps me realize the impact I can have as a physician,” Richardson said.

“Medals4Mettle is a life-enhancing journey for the child and the medical student,” said her mother Vonny Dean, who spoke at the ceremony.

Dean is confident Richardson will excel in whatever medical specialty he chooses and is glad to be able to help with his medical training. “He will be the kind of doctor I would take my daughter to see,” she said.