March 12, 2004

Two med students prepare to go the distance for HIV awareness

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Medical student Katy Clabo, right, interviews Patrick Luther, of Nashville CARES, as part of an educational documentary being created about HIV/AIDS. The documentary, filmed by Vanderbilt University medical students, will follow the participants on a 1,723 mile hike for the cause this summer. Gwen Hubbell, background, operates the camcorder.

Two med students prepare to go the distance for HIV awareness

Hubbell, who is filming the documentary for the Hike for HIV team, hopes the film will be an educational tool.

Hubbell, who is filming the documentary for the Hike for HIV team, hopes the film will be an educational tool.

This summer, two Vanderbilt medical students will strap on their backpacks to face grueling conditions, all in the name of charity. The pair will hike the 1,723 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS in Nashville. Their goal is to raise $10 for every mile they walk.

“Domestic AIDS seems to have fallen off the radar,” said Joshua Bress, Hike for HIV co-founder and a first-year Vanderbilt School of Medicine Student. I thought, I’ll walk the map if that’s what it takes to put it back on the map.”

Bress co-founded Hike for HIV, a campaign aimed at raising awareness and funds for Nashville CARES, Tennessee’s leading community-based AIDS service organization. The idea, he said, came from reading about last year’s AIDS walk, a Nashville CARES annual fundraiser. He cleared the campaign with Nashville CARES and got the project rolling.

Bress’s first challenge was convincing someone else to walk 20 miles a day for 12 weeks at heights up to 14,000 feet — a task almost as difficult as the hike itself.

Fortunately for Bress, fellow first-year Vanderbilt med student Kevin Elias shared his passion for AIDS awareness — and a “youthful naiveté and general sense of optimism,” according to Elias.

Bress and Elias began exploring their resources and gathering a team of volunteers.

“We couldn’t be in a better place,” Bress said. “Everyone here cares about AIDS. Vanderbilt offers incredible resources — top researchers, major HIV vaccine trials, available faculty. It’s not everywhere that you’d ask to meet with physicians, and be able to see them the next day. Even the administrators were readily available to meet with us.”

The first faculty member Bress contacted was Dr. Bonnie Miller, associate dean for Medical Students, who according to Bress “opened so many doors.”

“I was tickled by their enthusiasm and idealism, as well as a bit curious as to how they would pull it off, and how it would accomplish their goals,” Miller said of the Hike for HIV team. “At this point, I am totally impressed with their organizational skills, and I’m convinced that they can do it. I think the hike will be successful in raising community awareness.”

The Hike for HIV team, which also includes first-year Vanderbilt medical students Katy Clabo and Mercy Udoji, along with Vanderbilt University seniors Amber Wallin and Gwen Hubbell, has made progress since it formed this past fall. They created a comprehensive Web site,, to begin reaching out to the public and receiving donations online; they’re educating Tennessee State University students regarding HIV/AIDS; they’ve gotten corporate sponsorships; they’re even making a documentary about HIV/AIDS and the actual hike.

“The documentary will be educational, with interviews from members of the Nashville CARES team, people living with HIV in Nashville, and of course, the struggles of our hike. We want to show how students can make a difference,” Bress said.

This sentiment — that students can make a difference — is what drives the team.

“We have an obligation to look out for our peers,” Elias said. “We’re looking at the second generation of HIV. Young people need to understand the effects of choices they make. They need to be informed.”

The Hike for HIV team is preparing for their next informational campaign activity — HIV Week, April 12-16. The activities will include speakers and panels, and culminates with an HIV Awareness Fair at VUMC and a symbolic hike across the Vanderbilt campus.

“They (the team members) have demonstrated energy, advocacy, commitment and creativity in pushing forward with the Hike for HIV,” Miller said. “This project will heighten awareness and provide educational outreach about HIV right here in our community. The medical school is fully supportive and proud of their efforts.”

For Bress and Elias, their efforts go beyond the rest of their teammates. They’re training for the hike, waking up early every morning and heading to the gym for an hour and a half workout. They haven’t taken a single day off, because they know what they’re facing.

The actual Hike for HIV will take place this summer. Bress and Elias will trek the Pacific Crest Trail, walking the entire length of California, which is equivalent to 66 marathons. They will be carrying eight liters of water on their backs, along with all their camping gear.

“I’ve never done anything close to this scale,” said Elias. The farthest he can remember traveling on foot was six to seven miles. He and Bress will be crossing that distance before lunch the first day of the hike.