In what has become an annual tradition at the UConn School of Medicine, a few rising second-year students spend their last free summer bicycling across the country.
Every summer the group changes, but the mission stays the same. They ride to honor the dying wish of Lea Economos, who was only 28 when she lost her 10-year battle with leukemia.
Last week, when Erin Gombos, Carolyn Tusa, David Lam, Tom Presti and Alex Blanchette reached UConn Health after 3,700 miles over 53 days, then continued on to the shore in Madison, it marked the 10th successful completion of Coast to Coast for a Cure.
“Although we were the people doing the pedaling, there were so many people that made this trip possible,” Blanchette says. “We would like to thank everyone that we met on the trip, everyone that offered us food, gave us shelter, showed us kindness; everyone that listened to our story and everyone that shared their story with us.”
Economos’s family created Lea’s Foundation for Leukemia Research to carry out her wish – that others could be spared the hardship she faced. The 2015 Coast to Coast for a Cure, like the nine previous rides, raised money exclusively for Lea’s Foundation.
The Hartford nonprofit has been a philanthropic supporter of UConn Health, most notably with a $1.25 million pledge that led to the creation of the Lea’s Foundation Center for Hematologic Disorders within the Carolle and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health.
“America always seemed infinitely large,” Gombos says. “When the trip started, it was about taking things one day at a time and finding joy in small things. For example, I became breathless by some of the views. Seeking help from team members who were going through the same things as me also helped. As the trip went on, America became a finite and even more beautiful place. The trip left me even more impressed with our country.”
This year’s ride started in Seattle, unlike previous years, which started on the shore of San Francisco Bay, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The 2015 team followed a path that kept them in the northern states, through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, past the Great Lakes into Michigan and into Canada for a few days. They re-entered the United States near Niagra Falls and continued through New York State and into Massachusetts before reaching Connecticut.
The riders provided a near-daily account of their trip on a blog, complete with photos: coast2coastforacure.wordpress.com.
“When we crossed the border into Connecticut, the welcome sign had a wonderful poster attached to it with a congratulations to our team,” Presti wrote in the blog on the second-to-last day. “This really made it real that we were finally home.”
An injury forced a sixth student, Alex Tansey, to withdraw a few days into the trip.
Also unlike previous years, the traditional last leg of the trip, from Farmington to the Connecticut coast, was completed the same day as the UConn Health homecoming, Saturday, Aug. 1.
“Lea’s Foundation would like to extend their congratulations to the five UConn medical students who completed the 2015 Coast to Coast bike ride,” says Jaime Trajcevski, a member of the foundation’s board of directors. “They raised over $30,000 and the foundation couldn’t be prouder of all their efforts! Job well done!”
Coast to Coast for a Cure has raised more than $275,000 for Lea’s Foundation since it started in 2006.
“I am so honored to have been able to participate in Coast to Coast and I hope to translate the lessons learned into my career as a future physician,” Gombos says. “Riding across the country had been a dream of mine. What a cool and unique experience!”
Even though the pedaling has stopped, it’s not too late to make a pledge. Those who wish to support the 2015 Coast to Coast for a Cure can do so through leasfoundation.org,