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Coast to coast for a cure

Medical students cycle to raise money for leukemia research

by Carolyn Pennington - September 18, 2006

Imagine a summer spent traveling the country, visiting famous sites, viewing beautiful landscapes and meeting interesting people.

Then imagine it on a bicycle, often riding more than 100 miles a day, perhaps in 100 degree heat, up steep inclines or across never-ending flatness.

That's how UConn Medical School students Benjamin Ristau and Jeremiah Tracy spent this past summer.

The literal highs and lows of their trip, "Coast to Coast for a Cure," were well worth it: they raised more than $20,000 for Lea's Foundation for Leukemia Research.

"The Coast to Coast Bike Ride for Lea's Foundation has been one of the most meaningful things that I have done in my young life," says Ristau.

"Not only was I able to spend an entire summer outside, touring the country, but I was also able to raise a tremendous amount of money for a great cause."

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 118,000 new cases of leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma will be diagnosed in 2006. These diseases are expected to result in nearly 54,000 deaths this year.

Tracy knows that all too well.

This bike trip was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Elizabeth Herman Tracy, who had a rare form of leukemia. The loss shaped his life.

"When my mother passed away, I was a senior in high school and had not even envisioned a career in medicine," says Tracy.

While he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, he immersed himself in basic cell biology research.

After graduating, Tracy held a research position at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he took part in developing safer treatments for a variety of different forms of leukemia.

After completing his first year of medical school at UConn, Tracy was eager to undertake a new commitment in remembrance of his mother. Ristau was up for the challenge, too.

After a send-off from Health Center staff on June 28, the pair flew out to San Francisco to start the first leg of their journey.

Medical students Jeremiah Tracy, left, and Benjamin Ristau spent the summer cycling across the U.S. to benefit leukemia research.
Medical students Jeremiah Tracy, left, and Benjamin Ristau spent the summer cycling across the U.S. to benefit leukemia research.

During their two-month trek, they saw some amazing sites, including the 1,000 year-old cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, and some quirky ones, such as camels in Kansas and the home of Popeye in Chester, Ill.

One of the most difficult times of their journey was biking through Kansas during a heat wave.

"We were riding for eight hours a day, in 100 degree heat, with the wind in our faces instead of our backs," says Tracy.

"We were sweating profusely, eating lots of trail mix, and drinking gallons of Gatorade."

When they reached Pennsylvania, they knew their journey was almost at an end.

"By that time we were eager to get home," says Tracy.

"I know spending all day outdoors enjoying beautiful scenery is a great way to enjoy a summer, but the combination of eight hours a day on a bike and living out of a suitcase for almost two months can get old like anything else."

They crossed into Connecticut on Aug. 17, a week ahead of schedule, but formally ended their trek on Sept. 2 in Milford, Tracy's hometown.

There, they ceremonially dipped their bike tires in Long Island Sound, and were feted with a huge welcome home party.

"The combination of adventure and giving back to the Health Center community is something I will remember for the rest of my life," says Ristau.

"But I think the real personal value of the trip will come down the road, as I encounter other difficult journeys in my own life and am able to pull from lessons learned and confidence built on the road."

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