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UAB dental student uses cellphone photo to raise thousands of dollars for friend

March 17, 2014

Birmingham, Ala.—It only took a few seconds for A.J. Fennell to take an iPhone photo of the snow blanketing the downtown rooftops on a rare Feb. 12 snowstorm in the South.

It took another minute for the University of Alabama School of Dentistry student to share the photo to James Spann, a local meteorologist, on Twitter. At 5:15 p.m., Mr. Spann retweeted the image to his more than 126,000 followers. Then Mr. Fennell's phone died.

What happened after the phone was charged up, and in the days and weeks that followed, simply took him by surprise.

"It's been unbelievable," Mr. Fennell said of the generosity he has witnessed stemming from him snapping a dark iPhone photograph. He had to use an auto-enhance function to brighten up the lights of downtown Birmingham.

The image, taken atop of the City Federal Building, immediately spread across social media, going viral. In addition, Mr. Fennell said, the city's tourism company approached him to use the photo, while others started offering to pay him to get a copy of the image.

It didn't take long for Mr. Fennell to realize he could generate money from the photograph—not for him, but for a UAB School of Dentistry resident who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

"My fiancé suggested I use it to help raise money for Dr. Ned Wikle," he said. "And that was it."

Mr. Fennell, of Huntsville, Ala., pursued dentistry after working at his aunt's private dental practice throughout high school. He plans to ultimately move back to Huntsville and work with his aunt, Dr. Angela Fennell.

Dr. Wikle, a second year endodontics resident, was one of several dentists who gave Mr. Fennell and his fellow third-year dental students guidance and advice on their studies.

Along with being diagnosed with lung cancer in December, Dr. Wikle and his wife welcomed the birth of their third child.

"The medical bills are probably going to be astronomical," Mr. Fennell said. "There was going to be need."

In anticipation of the large amount of medical bills facing the family while Dr. Wikle isn't able to fully practice, Mr. Fennell started a fundraising effort through the website fundly.com. The deal: Mr. Fennell would send a digital copy of the photograph in exchange for any donation amount.

"I just thought, if everyone who have seen and shared my photograph (throughout social media) donated even a little, we can raise plenty of money to help out Dr. Wikle," Mr. Fennell said.

He again shared the link to the fundraising Web page with Mr. Spann, who again immediately retweeted it to his followers. The response surprised both Mr. Fennell and Dr. Wikle.

"Of course, I was humbled and my response was that of gratitude that A.J. wanted to do such a selfless, generous thing," said Dr. Wikle on learning from Mr. Fennell about the fundraising effort.

"Little did we know or expect that the outpouring of support would be what it has been," he said. "The messages of prayers, encouragement and love that people are leaving are truly treasures and offer so much encouragement to Dana (Dr. Wikle's wife) and I. I've been most surprised by the number of people that have participated in all the fundraising events, and the widespread support we've received from people that we've never met."

Twenty-four hours after the page was launched, Mr. Fennell reached his goal of raising $1,000. Four days later, he surpassed $10,000. Today, his new goal is $50,000. As of March 12, 594 supporters have donated more than $45,000.

"As a resident with three children and health insurance that covers some, but not nearly all, this has taken such a burden off of me, and allowed us to focus on getting treated, healing and enjoying time together as a family," said Dr. Wikle who is currently receiving treatment at UAB, which has set a plan in place to allow him to continue his residency.

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