Medals for Mettle: Doctor's charity awards sick kids medals for bravery
It’s 2 p.m. on a Thursday in the lobby at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. The sun glistens through the large overhead windows and brightens the spacious entryway. Children fill the lobby, some are too sick to stand and use wheelchairs or ride in wagons pulled by parents or volunteers. As they enter their bimonthly party, they hear show choir music from a local choir and see tables filled with toys, shirts, bags and crafts.
In the center of the room, the sun catches the reflection of hundreds of medals that lay on a table and casts sparkles on the wall like glitter. A 6-year-old boy in a wheelchair approaches the table with his parents. Alongside him, an IV pole and four bags of medicine drip into the many tubes connected to him. He winces in pain when they stop, and his mom reaches to comfort him. She explains to volunteers that prior to the party, he saw only a single hospital room for months. After a successful surgery, doctors approved a party visit to brighten his mood. He looks through the medals, each from a different marathon or half-marathon. He selects a Boston Marathon medal and a volunteer places it around his neck. For a brief moment, he forgets about the pain, forgets about the sterile setting and looks down at his badge of honor and smiles.
Small moments like these make the hard work involved in sourcing the medals worth every bit of effort for volunteers, says Dr. Steve Isenberg, a highly rated ear, nose and throat specialist in Indianapolis. Isenberg started his Indy-based charity, Medals4Mettle, in 2005 after an emotional experience with a good friend changed him forever.
A day after finishing the Boston Marathon in 2003, Isenberg visited his friend, Les Taylor, in the hospital. Isenberg sat in the chair next to Taylor, who suffered from late-stage prostate cancer, and wished there was something he could do to lift Taylor’s spirits during his final days. Then, he remembered the marathon medal in his pocket and had an idea. “I want you to have this,” he told his friend as he placed the medal around his neck. “You are running a much more difficult marathon than the one I completed.”
Before Taylor passed away days later, he told Isenberg how much the medal meant to him. His words inspired Medals4Mettle, an organization that collects runners’ medals and donates them to people battling debilitating illnesses and who demonstrate courage and mettle in fighting for survival. Runners give medals to the group when they cross the finish line or mail them to Isenberg’s office.
Volunteers make it happen
Isenberg runs the charity out of his private ENT practice in the Castleton area of Indianapolis. With so many medals donated and countless letters of thanks, the office overflows with Medals4Mettle belongings. It’s how many of Isenberg’s volunteers, like Eastside member Sally Powell, first learned about the charity.
Powell worked security at Eli Lilly for 35 years. She first visited Dr. Isenberg’s office after other physicians couldn’t resolve her acid reflux with medications. While in the waiting room, Powell read letters from parents and kids thanking Isenberg for their medals. When he minimized her symptoms — by stretching her esophagus — she said she’d love to help with the charity. After he explained that it’s a completely volunteer-based organization with no pay and they needed someone in Indy almost full time, she left her job at Lilly and never looked back. “Medals4Mettle has been the highlight of my life,” she says.
Powell represents more than 100 volunteers across the country who collect, donate and spend time furthering the mission of Medals4Mettle. Fourteen years after Isenberg founded the charity, it’s reach is huge, with 70 chapters in the U.S. and six overseas. With no paid volunteers, the organization’s only overhead is the $3 cost per medal to make the slick, colorful ribbon they use to hang the medals.
Powell estimates thousands of runners donate their earned medals each year. “The earned part is important,” Powell explains. Runners train at length to finish marathons. They push their bodies, minds and limits to reach their ultimate goal. “Sick people are running their own marathon, pushing themselves to survive,” she says.
With so many dedicated volunteers, Isenberg never struggles to find ways to thank and recognize them. In fact, it’s difficult to learn much about his personal life and upbringing as he prefers any media coverage to focus on the people behind the charity, not himself.
Despite that, his own investment in the program is undeniable. As a surgeon, he works nearly 60 hours a week with his patients and spends time with his three children and nine grandchildren. Yet, he still finds time between patients, during lunch and on the weekends to work on the charity. “It’s the fabric of my life and my family’s life,” he says. “We all get so much out of it, it’s never a burden.”
Community involvement and service for others isn’t new for the doctor. He grew up around 42nd and Ruckle, near the fairgrounds in Indianapolis and served as president of Shortridge High School’s Key Club in the 60s. He credits his family and teachers who insisted on discipline and doing the right thing with his passion for helping others. “They taught me the pay-it-forward mindset. It’s what I live by everyday,” he explains.
The real heroes
Isenberg’s passion radiates when he shares stories of the patients he’s met over the years, such as Nigel Schonfeld, a 17 year old battling bone marrow failure. Schonfeld played football, wrestled and ran track for his high school until his parents took him to the doctor after noticing unusual spots all over his skin. Doctors admitted him to Riley Hospital, where he stayed 72 days, undergoing countless treatments to save his life. It’s also where he met Isenberg and volunteers from Medals4Mettle.
As a former athlete, Schonfeld says he knows how much effort the runners spend working for their medals and feels humbled they’d donate them to people like him. “For kids like me, it’s hard to live a normal life,” Schonfeld says. “When people see the courage it takes and constant battle we fight and recognize it with a sacrifice, it’s something very special.”
Schonfeld’s prognosis is promising and he hopes to run track again someday and possibly earn a medal he can give to the organization. He works toward this goal on his good days, running for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. “I just want to keep going and keep fighting,” he says.
During a recent visit with Schonfeld, Isenberg listened to “Riley Blues,” a song the teenager recorded and copyrighted to raise money for Riley. He loves knowing that the medal acted as a catalyst for courage and compassion, inspiring Schonfeld to pay it forward. “It’s human nature at it’s basic form. It goes beyond language, race, economics and politics,” he says.
Volunteers and Isenberg admit that not all patients’ stories have happy endings — it’s the nature of the line of work they’re in. “The medal isn’t just for the patient, it’s for their families that fight alongside them and sacrifice so much to be there,” Isenberg says.
Myra Henry of Scottsburg, Indiana, knows all too well how much these medals mean. Her grandson, Brandon, who she helped raise, passed away after his body rejected a liver transplant. He received his medal nearly 10 years ago and Henry says he wore it during his surgeries and when he felt pain. “It gave him courage,” she says. Today, the medal hangs in her living room, along with a photo of Brandon. “I see that and know that if he had the courage to keep going, then I can too.”