Adam Donnelly kept a worn and faded photograph, which even survived a dunking in the ocean, as a constant reminder of the reason he was pursuing a medical degree.
“Medical school is hard. No one gets through med school unscathed. If you don’t have a driving force behind you, you won’t finish,” said Donnelly, 29, who graduated from the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University on May 10 and plans to work in primary care.
There were many days when he thought of calling it quits. But it was the smiling face of his sister Kristina, who died of Ewing’s sarcoma in 1999 when she was only 11, that kept him focused on his goal.
“She was as smart as a whip. She loved to draw, and she played the violin. She was much more popular than I was at her age, but she was a sweet kid. She’s still with me,” he said, showing the photo he carries in his wallet.
Donnelly was four years older than his sister, who was a student at Riverside Middle School at the time of her death. When she was diagnosed with the disease in 1997, he said, they were typical brother and sister, arguing over trivial things.
Cancer caused their relationship to change.
“We found a new appreciation for each other,” he said. “We never left without saying ‘I love you.’ We grew closer together.”
As he watched her battle her illness, his life was impacted by the caring doctors who treated her. In 1999, he attended his first Camp Rainbow, a camp for children with cancer. Children can bring one sibling along, and while he was supposed to be a camper just like his sister, he wanted to do more.
He has continued to volunteer at Camp Rainbow every year since.
During Kristina’s treatment, Donnelly met a lot of doctors and others who influenced his life and shaped his course.
His decision to go to medical school didn’t come in a lightning-strike, “aha” moment. “It was a gradual sort of thing,” he said.
He didn’t go into medical college immediately after graduating from Georgia Southern University with a degree in chemistry. He spent three years working as a research assistant at the Georgia Regents University dental school.
The next step for Donnelly is his residency. He leaves June 1 for Baton Rouge, La., where he will be at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
“I was first thinking about pediatric oncology,” he said. “I’ll probably go into primary care. I feel I can be more effective in primary care, and I like outpatient a lot more than I like inpatient.”
No matter what his specialty, Donnelly’s parents are proud of his decision and efforts.
“Adam loved Kristina very much,” said their father, Brian Donnelly. “I often feel that because of the severity of her illness, as a big brother, he felt he was not able to protect her the way big brothers are supposed to, but I think he was able to derive inspiration and set upon a path that would allow him to have a positive impact on the lives of those children he could help. And for that I am extremely proud.”
Adam Donnelly believes that his parents aren’t the only proud ones. He believes his sister is still smiling at him, and not just from the faded photo.
“She was super-concerned about my future,” he said. “She cared about other people more than herself.”