Published January 29, 2020
Second-year medical students Cullan V. Donnelly and Ryan Elnicki teamed up with the Buffalo Bills this past season to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Western New York in memory of an inspiring young man who made an impact on students and faculty at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The Bills donated $5 for each ticket that was sold through a special link for three home games — Nov. 24 vs. the Denver Broncos, Dec. 8 vs. the Baltimore Ravens and Dec. 29 vs. the New York Jets.
Despite only publicizing the fundraiser through Facebook and Instagram, Donnelly and Elnicki sold 534 tickets, which netted $2,670 for the MDA Summer Camp.
“Ryan and I were blown away by the community support, both inside and outside of the school. Going into this, we thought $500 to $1,000 to be generous, but we more than doubled our highest expectations,” Donnelly says. “We feel truly blessed to have such amazing friends, family and colleagues to help support us.”
“We were just ecstatic that it was able to gain the traction that it did, and we just continued to get the word out to be able to raise as much for MDA as possible,” Elnicki adds.
Their inspiration was Nathan Apotosky of Lackawanna, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) at age 7.
Apotosky was a guest lecturer at the Jacobs School for more than a decade, volunteering to speak about life with DMD to classes taught by Nicholas J. Silvestri, MD, assistant dean for student and academic affairs and clinical associate professor of neurology, and Daniel W. Sheehan, MD, PhD, associate dean for medical curriculum and clinical professor of pediatrics.
Duchenne is the most common of the more than 30 types of muscular dystrophy. Caused by a genetic mutation in the DMD gene, the disease — which usually affects boys — leads to a progressive deterioration of muscle strength and function.
Before he was able to speak to Donnelly and Elnicki’s class, Apotosky died on March 6, 2019, at age 23 from complications of the disease.
One of Apotosky’s last acts was to create an educational video specifically for the Class of ’22.
“Nathan helped us to learn on a personal level about his disease,” Donnelly says. “One thing he always emphasized to his mom and doctors was honesty. He didn’t want them to sugarcoat his situation.”
He stressed the same thing to students in the emotional video.
“Not a single pair of eyes could leave the screen as he wished us the best with our studies, to remain open and honest with our patients, and to treat patients like him with humanity and compassion,” Donnelly says.
“Nathan was just a spectacular kid,” adds Donnelly, a Buffalo native who aspires to a career in emergency medicine. “Despite his disease, he lived life to the fullest — he went to prom; he had lots of amazing friends.”
Apotosky was also a “huge, huge Buffalo sports fan — especially the Bills,” Donnelly says. “One of his biggest regrets was that he never made it to a regular season Bills game.”
About two weeks after watching the video, Donnelly emailed Sheehan proposing a Bills-related fundraiser in Apotosky’s honor. Maggie Apotosky, Nathan’s mother, suggested the funds be donated to the MDA Summer Camp, where her son had spent a lot of time as a child.
Throughout the summer, Donnelly and Elnicki — who met in anatomy lab their first year of medical school and have been friends ever since — brainstormed ways to remember Apotosky that would in some way relate to the Bills.
Elnicki, a native of Sanborn in Niagara County who also hopes to be an emergency medicine physician, took care of logistics and organized the social media aspect of the fundraiser.
They had a tailgate party at the Bills-Ravens game that attracted dozens of medical students.
“We are planning to make it an annual event, but that will depend on being able to find students in the current first-year class that would be willing to take over for us going into next year,” says Elnicki, who indicated that he and Donnelly would still be available to support future efforts with communications and promotion.
In addition, the Jacobs School is working to incorporate the video into the first-year curriculum so that future medical students can also learn from Apotosky’s experiences.