OSU-COM student spreads global health message on coast-to-coast bike trip
Blake Middleton, OMS IV, rides in the desert outside of Westmoreland, Calif., in the early days of his cross-country journey with Ride for World Health. (Photo courtesy of Middleton)
After riding 80 miles, my team and I were resting in Julian, Calif., a small town in the state’s southern mountains. We’d climbed 7,000 feet that day after starting our trip in San Diego. I realized I was incredibly lucky to be spending my final two months of medical school biking across the country while educating people about global health, and I started thinking about how I got here.
Throughout medical school, I broke up the monotony of studying for hours on end by training for endurance sporting events. It was easier to get through all-nighters and tests when I knew I had a half-marathon to run at the end of the week. But eventually, up to 20 hours of training per week started to seem excessive on top of my studies. If I wanted to continue training, it would have to be for a more meaningful purpose than simply relieving medical school stress, I decided.
After researching several options, I found Ride for World Health and knew instantly that it was what I’d been looking for. Ride for World Health is a nonprofit that promotes education, advocacy and fundraising to combat global health disparities. Its cycling team completes a 3,700-mile cross-country journey each year from San Diego to Washington, D.C. The 16 team members, who are mainly medical students, raise money to support world health and teach Americans about international health initiatives via a coast-to-coast lecture series, which they present in most of their destination cities as they pedal across the nation.
Ride for World Health was a way for me to combine my two greatest passions, world health and cycling. As I write, our team is in Louisville, Ky., and well over 2,500 miles into our ride.
“We’ve enjoyed gorgeous views from the tops of mountains to the middle of deserts and everywhere in between.” Middleton
I first became interested in world health during my first summer of medical school, when I volunteered in the mountains of central-western Mexico. The Tarahumara, an indigenous tribe, lives and works in these mountains. The tribe is isolated from most of the developed world. As I traveled through the mountains making house calls, working in small clinics, and helping out in a missionary hospital, I saw many medical problems that I couldn’t imagine seeing in the U.S. These problems came from the area’s tuberculosis epidemic, extreme poverty, malnutrition and lack of clean drinking water. After I witnessed the great health disparity between the U.S. and one of its neighboring countries, I became more interested in learning about other global health problems and what people are doing to correct them.
Spreading the word
As a lecturer on the Ride for World Health team, I have not only educated others on world health issues, but also learned a great deal about them. In our lectures, we often discuss the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals, created by the UN in 1990 to be completed by 2015. The goals include primary education for all, gender equality, drastic reductions in child mortality and infectious diseases, and an improvement in maternal health. A few of the goals have already been met, and global health leaders are working hard on the others.
During this trip, I’ve been lecturing on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and what steps can be taken worldwide to prevent and reduce the occurrence of these illnesses. NCDs are often overlooked as the UN prioritizes the aforementioned development goals. However, NCDs contribute to 36 million worldwide deaths annually and, according to the World Economic Forum, drive 75% of global health care costs. Most people consider these chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, to be problems of developed countries, but 80% of the 36 million deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.
So far on this trip, I’ve given talks to elementary classrooms, community and church groups, and medical students and professionals. I’m hopeful that the knowledge and awareness we are spreading across the country will inspire others to create new opportunities for improvement of world health.
As I mentioned, we are more than 2,500 miles into our trip and will be nearing the end in two short weeks. On this refreshing break before my residency starts in July, I’ve had a chance to focus and reflect on why I am entering the medical field. Participating in Ride for World Health has further solidified my desire to help others and better their lives. I’ve also built relationships with other medical students from all over the country going into nearly every medical specialty. I am the only osteopathic medical student on the team, and I won over my teammates by providing post-ride manipulation sessions.
Aside from the reflecting, teaching and fund-raising, our team has enjoyed an abundance of unforgettable moments and laughter. The riders come with a wide variety of biking experience. One rider had only ever been on an indoor trainer, but after a few weeks and a couple of “learning falls” she was biking like a seasoned rider. We’ve ridden 10-plus days so far, which is enough for anyone to feel comfortable on the bike. At night, we stay in churches, community centers and school gyms. The sleeping arrangements lend the trip a summer-camp vibe and allow more of the money we raise to go directly to our beneficiaries.
We’ve enjoyed gorgeous views from the tops of mountains to the middle of deserts and everywhere in between. Sampling the food from across the country is a definite perk as well. Some of my favorites include date milkshakes in Dateland, Ariz., a town flush with date trees; green chili hamburgers from Blake’s Lotaburger near Albuquerque, N.M.; and barbecued brisket and chicken from Interstate Barbecue in Memphis, Tenn.
But the most enjoyable part of the ride by far is talking with people we meet along the way, whether they stop us as we ride, attend one of our lectures or meet with us in their community. People start out curious about why we are riding and then become inspired and eager to take part in improving world health. For instance, one couple who pulled over on the roadside to ask us about our trip donated $200 on the spot after learning about our mission.
I would recommend Ride for World Health to any medical student who is interested in cycling and world health. The organization’s website has more information about our trip and participating in future rides. All medical students can partake regardless of their biking experience or knowledge of international health issues. Personally, I’ve found teaching and learning about global health to be endlessly rewarding. Ride for World Health has been a life-changing experience for me. With all I’ve seen and learned so far, I’m even more psyched to incorporate world health into my future career as a DO.
Blake Middleton, OMS IV, will graduate this month from the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa.