To say that Dr. Gail Addlestone made an impact during her lifetime is putting it mildly. The beloved and highly respected Nashville pediatrician who lost her life to breast cancer in 2007 began an inspiring legacy through her mission to support cancer patients and their families with Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee. Now, 14 years after her passing, Gail is being honored through the inaugural Gilda’s Gang 5K and 1-Mile Family Fun Run to benefit Gilda’s Club, which is taking place on Saturday, April 3 at Shelby Park. Today, we’re honored to highlight this remarkable woman and the steadfast group of friends who continue to fundraise in her honor.
After losing her own mother to ovarian cancer, Gail was drawn to volunteering with Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee — a no-cost support and networking program that offers services and workshops to those impacted by cancer. “When people who aren’t involved in Gilda’s Club think of it, they think of cancer,” says Laura Alabed-Olsson, Director of Marketing, Communications and Events for Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee, “but when they’re involved, I think the word that comes to mind faster than ‘cancer’ is ‘community.’” Gail certainly embraced the community she found with Gilda’s Club, which became even more profound when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer not long after she began volunteering. At the time, Gail was also pregnant with her first child, Eleanor, who was delivered early before Gail began chemo. Gail’s friend, and fellow Gilda’s Gang member, Danielle Gilbert says, “In the midst of a cancer diagnosis, Gail decided she wanted to give back to Gilda’s Club … I don’t even think she had run before, but she loved Gilda’s, and she thought it was important to exercise during cancer treatment. So, she called up some of her close friends and said she wanted to start a half-marathon training program to raise money. None of us had run before, and I really wasn’t all that interested, but you couldn’t say no to Gail.”
Each Saturday, Gail and her supportive confidantes gathered to train and work toward their goal of completing the Country Music Half Marathon together. Family friend Jessica Averbuch says that’s when Gilda’s Gang officially formed. “A whole group of us rallied to do the marathon with her,” says Jessica. “She wasn’t in good shape at that point, with everything she’d been through, but we did it. We created Gilda’s Gang — a group of people that ran for Gilda’s Club and raised money — and Gail’s cancer journey really spurred it.” Dr. Jule West, who became close friends with Gail in medical school and remained by her side from that point forward, shares that although their first year of running the marathon only saw a handful of participants, Gail dreamed big. “The Country Music Marathon was pretty new in town,” Jule explains. “Gail wondered how we could foray it into a fundraiser. She saw a way to find something for herself that wasn’t there — and that was also magnanimous in thinking of others.“
Even as Gail’s health drastically declined, her Gilda’s Gang mission continued moving forward. This effort by Gail was the inspiring picture of people going through really hard things coming together to support each other to do something greater than themselves. Though Gail was unable to complete the marathon on her first attempt, she was determined to try it again the following year, and her Gilda’s Gang crew was with her every step of the way. “We did it again the next year, and it was way bigger — way more people and a lot of press about it,” says Danielle. “It was really fun and exciting, but at that point, Gail was really sick. She had cancer all over her body.” She struggled greatly, but determination prevailed, and Gail managed to walk the entire marathon in April 2007. “I don’t know how she did it, but she got all of us out there, and we ended up walking the whole thing,” Danielle says. “I think her goal was to get it done in under five hours, and the whole time, she was pushing everybody along to try to make sure she did it in her time. And she did. She was just amazing.”
Three months after Gail crossed the finish line, her battle ended when she lost her life to cancer. And while her loved ones continue to mourn her loss, her beautiful legacy continues in Gilda’s Gang. In fact, the fundraising team has gone on to raise upwards of $1.3 million since then — a poignant tribute to Gail and her fortitude. “There’s a deep love and respect and appreciation for Gail,” says Laura. “We’re continuing to show up for our community, whether it’s through Gail’s legacy or just to encourage a community that really helps people live better with cancer.”
Though Gilda’s Gang took a hiatus several years ago, they are back with a renewed sense of spirit and an event to encourage community togetherness in 2021. On April 3, Gilda’s Gang will host their inaugural 5k and Family Fun Run — the first time they’re conducting their own event. “Beyond the awareness and fundraising, the community is coming together,” says Laura. “I have no doubt, even with it being a new event, that it’s going to be amazing.” An untimed event for all ages, the race isn’t about competition or getting a congratulatory chip. Laura says it’s about coming together as a community and building awareness for the cancer support program. “It’s about raising money to help fuel it so that it can continue to be free for anybody in Middle Tennessee who needs us.” This is so that Gilda’s Club can continue as a free service for anyone who needs it, no insurance card needed; all are welcome. As their motto states, “We build community, so no one has to face cancer alone.” And a sense of community is really the impetus behind every element of their Shelby Park event.
While COVID poses its fair share of challenges, the team is taking great care to ensure the community is safe and engaged — from taking social-distancing measures to finding ways for virtual participants to feel more present. “We have two different things that virtual participants can do,” explains Laura. “If they want a running or walking buddy, we’ll pair them with somebody who’s actually walking or running on the day of the race. They’ll FaceTime as the walker is actually walking so they can have that social opportunity — to see people cheering and the beautiful lake at Shelby Park, and to let them soak in the moment even if they aren’t able to be there in person.” There will also be a virtual scavenger hunt of sorts, involving photos of prominent Shelby Park landmarks such as the nature center and the trestle bridge. Virtual participants can walk within their own neighborhoods to locate similar items and check them off the list. “It lets them see a bit of Shelby Park and what we’re experiencing on the premises,” says Laura, “but it also encourages them to think a little more creatively so that it’s not just another walk around their neighborhood.”
For those choosing to walk in-person, grab-and-go snack cups and live music will enhance the experience along with, of course, the camaraderie, connection and celebration of the phenomenal woman who made an indelible mark on the Gilda’s Club family, even in the face of personal adversity. “One of my favorite things about Gail was that she was really unflappable,” Jule says of her dear friend. “When she was sick, she was always willing to take a breath and not be discouraged or beaten down. She was kind and encouraging and unflappable. That’s a trait that I always really admired in her because I think it takes a lot not to get overwhelmed with life in general — especially when you have a cancer diagnosis and a young child and a history of losing family members to cancer.” Fortunately, thanks to the tenacity of her Gilda’s Gang, Gail’s love, support and memory live on.
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