For them, it is about more than running a race or doing a good deed. It’s about showing the youngest cancer patients that there’s a team of doctors and medical students in the fight with them.

The students — plus one seminary student — are participating in Medals4Mettle, a program that connects athletes and critically ill patients.

“I feel the need to be a personal advocate for patients. Medical students and doctors really do care about patients but often we’re too busy to say, ‘I’m rooting for you and I’m running this race with you,’” said Marc Ettensohn, a medical student and cancer survivor. “This is an opportunity to practice a different type of medicine. I can be a healer instead of letting the drugs do all the work.”

UofL’s participation in Medals4Mettle started three years ago when Riley Jones, a first-year medical student and developing tri-athlete, conceived of a way to marry these two passions in his life. He recruited 13 classmates to run in the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon on behalf of pediatric cancer patients and the UofL Medals4Mettle team was born.

Since then, Jones has matured as a student and an athlete and Medals4Mettle has grown along with him. Now in his third year of med school, Jones is close to settling on a career in general surgery and has two Iron Man competitions under his belt.

The Louisville team is not only bigger than it originally was, its approach goes well beyond the original Medals4Mettle’s concept of distributing donated medals through the mail.

The students met their running buddies at a ceremony on Tuesday, April 12.

By the time the race comes around this weekend, many of the UofL students will have exchanged e-mails and phone calls with their patient partners and kept vigil during doctor visits and grueling chemotherapy treatments. On race day, the runners will wear friendship bracelets made by their young friends. The next day, they will give their hard-earned marathon medals to their patients in a special ceremony.

The experience is good for patients and students alike.

Five-year-old Samuel Adams, who has acute lymphocytic leukemia, participated in Medals4Mettle last year with Sarah Todd, now a fourth year medical student. She’s running for him again this year.

“It’s a really wonderful program,” said Samuel’s mother, Chrystal Brigman, explaining that it helps both the patient and student connect on a closer level than is typical of doctor-patient relationships.

“Sarah came to many of his appointments. She’s special and really stuck with it. I have her in my phone and talk to her a lot. He sees her more as a friend. She came to his birthday party!”

All the running buddies are cancer or blood disorders patients of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Specialists, a practice operated by UofL Pediatrics faculty members. This year, they range in age from 2 to 20 years and are being treated for such conditions as brain cancer, acute lymphocytic leukemia and sickle cell disease.

Jones’ 14-year-old partner Andrew Holland, who has cancer of the spine, is very enthusiastic about Medals4Mettle.

“I think it’s great!” he said.

His mother added that she appreciates the support from students and other Medals4Mettle families that the program affords.

“You wouldn’t believe how comforting it is to talk to people who know what you’re going through,” Regina Hensley said.

Salvatore Bertolone, MD, chief of the UofL Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Blood and Marrow Transplant, considers Medals4Mettle an excellent opportunity for patients and students alike.

“This program celebrates mettle, which is a fancy word for courage or determination. It’s the kind of character trait that gets a marathon runner through the long race. It’s the pluck that gets a medical school student through years and years of training. And it’s the spirit that we see in all of our patients and their families,” he said.