By Jessica Fleishman, MD
Forward by Traci Dinwiddie
When I began my journey as a first-time rider in AIDS/LifeCycle 2013, I was not a cyclist. The idea of clipping into pedals terrified me, not to mention street-biking through Los Angeles traffic. I also trembled as I put my first fundraising goal to $30,000. I’m a working actress and public figure, but I’m no big time movie star, so I had a lot of doubt when it came to my ability to raise those kinds of funds. Despite my fears, I took on AIDS/LifeCycle for my dear friends lost to AIDS, as well as for the hope I might bring to those living with HIV. That year, I ended up raising over $107,000, with the incredible support of my “T~bugs.”* I took on century rides and 9.5 mile climbs up steep hills. I delighted in the gorgeous California terrain one could only adequately admire from a bicycle and met thousands of incredible fun-loving people along the way.
Since then, my reasons for riding for AIDS/LifeCycle have multiplied like gremlins on an ALS ice bucket challenge. Today, I not only ride to end this pandemic, I ride for every beautiful soul who supports this mission. I ride for my fellow riders and roadies. I ride for the new friends I’ve made along this journey and the immense sense of purpose I receive for just showing up. The ironic thing about this cause is that our own lives are saved and enhanced as we make the commitment to be of service to others. People with broken hearts and spirits have transformed into heroes. I have witnessed riders from all walks of life in all sizes of bodies pedal up extraordinary hills with the widest grins a face could hold. I’ve seen people hop off their bicycles to hand push those struggling riders up hills and hug them while they cry happy tears. AIDS/LifeCycle is a true friend-maker and a sweet combination of whimsy and sport. It is not a race, but a ride of a lifetime. My teammates span over 14 countries and all over the United States. We have bonded beyond what words could express. Jessica Fleishman, my teammate, is one of those guaranteed life-long friends I’ve made on my AIDS/LifeCycle journey. Please enjoy her account of taking on the ride for her first time. And, I challenge you to join us for 2015. We would love to have you!
Click here (and use) GOODISNESS for a team discount code on the registration fee & join us! Be well. Get tested. Talk about HIV & AIDS. Only love, ~Traci
(*An affectionate name Traci uses to refer to her fans.)
There are so many reasons why I chose to participate in the AIDS/LifeCycle 2014 event this year, and many more why I am choosing to do it again in 2015. The simplest explanation for riding this year was that as a physician and a bike aficionado, it made perfect sense to ride for a good cause, but there were other reasons too. After sustaining an ankle fracture while skiing on New Year’s day of this year, and a long winter of inactivity, by mid-March, I desperately needed to have something to look forward to, to get myself off the couch and move again.
While mindlessly pilfering my time on Facebook and Twitter, as one is wont to do when there is a litany of more important things to do, I found out that Nicole Conn, the movie director, had registered for ALC (AIDS Lifecycle) as a “virtual cyclist” and had joined Traci Dinwiddie’s team to help raise funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Traci is a seasoned actress who has played lead roles in Nicole’s movies, and the 2014 ride was her second time participating in the ALC. In 2013, she put together a team of five, but for 2014, she wanted something much bigger, and on one of her wacky YouTube videos she asked for 100 team-members by Valentine’s day. In mid-March, when I found out about the event, I signed up for it and joined Traci’s team within minutes. I had no time to waste for fundraising to be able to join as a rider and get myself in shape. That same day, I dusted off my bike and went on a very slow 40-mile ride in the southern Catskills, still wearing my ankle brace. After months of idleness, I felt blood running through my veins. I was outside again enduring the cold and breathing fresh air. I can do this ride I thought to myself: “I’m back.” It was a mini-celebration of life, and a prelude for what ALC would be. I had eight more weekends to push the mileage until I felt ready, that is, able to ride the 545 miles from San Francisco to LA in seven days.
As a medical student, I saw AIDS hospital wards where death was the norm. I had just seen the Oscar-winning movie “Dallas Buyers’ Club.” It was a moving story that touched me personally. I went to medical school in Dallas at exactly the same time the story of the movie takes place. As a busy student, I, as well as all of my classmates, were completely unaware that Mr. Woodroof’s story was happening at our “teaching” hospital. For better or worse, back in the 80’s, “teaching” hospitals were the norm for medical students and resident training. The death toll was mind-boggling. It was as though people had been bitten by a snake for which there was no timely anti-venom. After years of practicing as an ophthalmologist, I had not paid much attention to HIV, because the eye diseases associated with HIV are hardly ever seen anymore because of the efficacy of anti-retroviral-therapy (ART). However, ART does not mean the problem is not just as daunting now as it was before.
HIV is no longer a death sentence, but it is still relevant for many reasons. This year the Journal of the American Medical Association had one entire issue devoted to HIV. The number of new HIV infections in the US alone is 50,000 per year, and that number has not changed since the 1990’s. In the US 16% of seropositive HIV individuals do not know their status and account for 45% of new infections. The cost of anti-retroviral therapy is $25,000 per patient, per year, and the average lifetime cost of this treatment is $400,000. These numbers are a testament to the fact that we are not doing enough to make a preventable disease extinct. It is clear that economic factors play a great role in our inability to reach our goal. If these are not enough reasons to want to help, I am not sure what they would be.
Besides participating in ALC, the other best decision I made was joining Traci’s team. I have to admit, at first, the thought of riding alone and sharing a tent with a random person was not an appealing option. But Traci, who has a following all over the world, managed to put together a team of cyclists and roadies and virtual cyclists—in total 76 members. She attracted women from Russia, Australia, Norway, Germany, France, Italy, England, Switzerland, Austria, and from all over the continental US and Puerto Rico. The team bonded via Facebook way before the ride, and by the time we actually met in California, we were already a family of sorts.
In 2014, Traci was the third highest fundraiser in the history of ALC, raising over $300,000. As captain of the team, she proved to be a formidable yet gentle force with a great sense of humor and a big heart. The night before the ride, I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, only to find out (for which I felt begrudging) that Traci was coming to the room I was sharing with other mates to work on her costume for day 5 “red dress day,” which I interpreted as just wearing a red jersey. Wrong I was. It meant “a red dress” for the wackiest and most colorful ride of week. We laughed so much that not a tiny bit of grudge remained.
The ride itself is a monumental logistical achievement. From orientation day to the finish line every eventuality had been anticipated and planned for. I have participated in mountain bike races in the past; and though I liked the competition, I was not a fan of the lack of camaraderie that competition brings out. The spirit of ALC is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. On Inauguration Day, Greg Sroda, the CEO of this event gave a speech in which he said “you will be forever changed” after this ride. It sounded like a tall order, but with tears flowing freely from exhaustion, sadness over having lost a loved one to HIV, and the excitement of having had the courage to throw ourselves into this life-affirming experience there was no room for cynicism. We were under one roof at San Francisco’s Cow Palace with 2,340 cyclists, hundreds, of roadies, and volunteers from every corner of the planet, all nervous and excited. I was once again, happy to have my teammates to share this moment with. Then the time came to actually ride.
Imagine 2,340 cyclists waiting at the gate. It was a slow process that seemed insane, but once again the spirit of the ride was clear. This was not a race and we were all there not just to raise funds but to help each other achieve whatever goal each participant had set for himself or herself. The entire city of San Francisco had come out to cheer us on, and it became clear to me that this event was a celebration of life in every sense of the term, over a subject so somber as HIV and it’s continued death toll. Only ALC could pull this off, and this year was a record-breaking year for ALC, they raised over $15 million dollars. There was no lack of entertainment and laughter. Every few miles performers would be dancing to the beat of a boom box in outrageous costumes telling every cyclist “you are my hero.” My favorite was the guy dressed up as the “little blue pill,” whispering as you passed by him, “Keep it up.”
I saw riders push other riders uphill with one hand, while holding on to the handlebars of their own bicycle, with the other. People in crazy costumes handed out Twizzlers along the road to provide the calories going for the cyclists. Then there were rest stops with endless snack choices, lunch, more rest stops, then dinner at the campsite. This was the most pampered athletic event I had ever been to. The mobile showers at the campsites were labeled: male, female, and gender neutral. The medical tent was open at every stop. Massage, chiropractic services, and yoga classes were available at every campsite. I was lucky I didn’t really need any of the services, but a massage was hard to refuse. During dinner every evening, we were gathered under an enormous tent where the directors of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LA LGBT Center would have a report and photos on a giant screen of all the interesting and quirky happenings of the day. They also shared stories about riders that had experienced harrowing events in their lives that would render most of us handicapped, but these people were riding to celebrate survival. There were the HIV-positive riders, who proudly wore their “HIV+ ” jerseys without the fear of being stigmatized.
On the fourth evening, we received the news that a veteran ALC cyclist of 13 years had suffered a cardiac event during the ride and was on life-support. She died a day later, and on day six, we all wore her cyclist number 1371, on our helmets in addition to our own to symbolize her arrival to the finish line for her 13th and final time. Once again, the timing of this gesture was spot on, yet another example of the heart and brains behind this event. Roadies at bike parking had been assigned to distribute the stickers with Edna’s number to everyone who left on a bike. The riding days were long and gave me ample time to reflect. As each rider moved at his or her own speed, there was plenty of solo riding time for reflection while moving. It occurred to me that this was not too different from a religious pilgrimage, whether one is religious or not. This is when I realized what Greg Sroda meant when he said “you will be forever changed.” The ample time for solitude and reflection without ever feeling alone was unique at an event like this. One day I came up to a cyclist wearing a jersey with proud “Brooklyn” on it. I asked him where in Brooklyn. Greenpoint, he said. Williamsburg, I replied. We smiled and never saw each other again.
After three and a half days of solo riding, I ran into Traci during our lunch break. There was not a lot to say, but it was not necessary. We had already bonded in the absence of language and in the silence of a shared experience. I asked if she minded company riding back to camp, and she gracefully accepted. We had gotten a late start that day, and we had to ride the remaining 38 miles practically non-stop to avoid having to hop on the “sag” bus. I was thinking we were just not going to do any more rest stops, but Traci had a slightly different idea of non-stop. She stopped just to shake her bootie and loosen up her muscles to the beat of the music that was always present at every stop. They were just one-minute stops that made me laugh just watching her shake it all out. We made it to camp, and to our surprise, our teammates who had not been able to ride the entire distance that day were setting up everyone’s tents, the nicest gesture for the tired bodies that had pushed their limits that day. Not every cyclist rode every single mile. Some were happy riding whatever their bodies gave them that day and then ride the bus to camp. Others rode every single mile. Everyone’s accomplishments were a cause for celebration regardless of riding distance.
The last day of the ride from Ventura Beach to LA, was the day before the LA Pride Parade. I felt like I had just been a part of the biggest Pride event on the planet. Arriving at the finish line in LA was just as inspiring as leaving San Francisco after the opening ceremony. The following day was the toughest for me. I felt lost without my team and without my bike. (FedEx, one of sponsors of the event, was at the finish line ready to ship bikes back to Russia, China, New York, etc.) The team met for brunch the following day to celebrate, and again Traci pulls it all together to create another unforgettable moment, exhausted as she was. After brunch, I was looking for bike rentals in LA just to hang on a bit longer to the experience. Thankfully my friend Fabiola, a local from West Hollywood, saved me with a non-stop LA agenda. And there was no doubt at this point that I would be participating again in ALC 2015. Though I’m happy to go back to CA for this cause, I have thought that New York has the perfect geography to do the same to help so many organizations in need of funding. I have been riding in the Southern Catskills discovering new areas, and I’m amazed at the beauty that surrounds me when I ride here. We don’t have to start with a seven-day ride, but I am working on at least a three to four day route as challenging as any rider wants to make it. This will take a few years to coordinate. In the meantime, I will continue to fundraise for AIDS Lifecycle, and will be holding fundraising events at my office, The Center For Sight of New York at 14 Hope Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I have several ideas in mind to this end and will make sure they are well publicized to maximize attendance and collaboration for this worthy cause.
——————– Jessica Fleishman was born in Peru and came to the US when she was 14. Her father, an American petroleum engineer, went to Peru in the late 50s, which is where he met her mother, a native of Peru. Jessica went to college and medical school in Texas, and graduated from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. She is a board certified ophthalmologist and has been practicing since 1997. She has performed over 30K surgeries (lasik and cataracts). She joined the Williamsburg medical community with her new office which opened October 2013. “I take great pride in the care and state-of-the-art equipment in my office, in the same way that I do not only with my work but with all of my interests,” says Fleishman. Jessica lives with her partner of 13 years and their 5 year-old-twin girls. They divide their time between an apartment in Williamsburg and a house in New Paltz. “I have been a bike fan since I was four years old. I still remember the eureka moment I had when I realized I was riding without training wheels. Anything physical is fascinating to me – from doing surgery, to skiing, biking, dancing or riding a unicycle among other things. I’m afraid the list of thing I have pursued obsessively at one point or another is long and may be misconstrued as boastful. The one thing that I would love to try but haven’t yet is kite surfing, and I’m seriously thinking about the where and when right now. My father’s sister, who died this year at the age of 101, gave me the words by which I live: ‘Boredom is a sin.’ She was right. There is just so much to see and do in our relatively short lives.”