Dr. Tim Cunningham, DrPH, MSN, RN, FAAN is the Vice President of Practice and Innovation at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Cunningham was an assistant professor of nursing with a joint appointment in the drama department, and Director of the Compassionate Care Initiative at the University of Virginia (UVA). He earned a BA in English from the College of William and Mary, worked as a professional actor and teacher for nearly a decade before joining the Clinical Nurse Leader program at the University of Virginia. After earning an MSN from UVA, he worked as a pediatric and adult trauma/emergency nurse at UVA, in Washington, D.C., and NYC while also serving as executive director of Clowns Without Borders, USA, work that took him around the world, including to post-earthquake Haiti where a documentary film “Send in the Clowns” featured him and his colleagues. He completed a Doctorate in Public Health in 2016 at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in the Department of Population and Family Health. While a doctoral student, Dr Cunningham volunteered as a pediatric nurse with Partners in Health on the frontlines in Sierra Leone during the West Africa Ebola crisis. Dr Cunningham’s research focuses on self-care, resilience, and compassion. Building on his work with the Compassionate Care Initiative and his global experience, Dr. Cunningham has developed a strength focused psychosocial model to support frontline nurses being offered through the ENA in Partnership with the ANA. This program has been sought after by other healthcare professionals and will be beneficial to all frontline providers.
Dr. Cunningham aspires to approach leadership from a place of humility and connectivity. “Being a leader is not my role. My role is to serve and advocate for those I serve- my staff and the patients we care for. They determine my effectiveness. My role is to make sure the voices of bedside providers are being heard and advocate to make sure they have everything they need to provide safe and compassionate patient care. Effective leadership requires dealing with what is immediately in front of you and entering spaces not being attached to outcomes but by being present. Listening is key. Communication is an iterative process that is never perfect and requires constant refinement. This is a novel virus and every aspect of it is novel. We are all going through this experience together and making the best decisions with the knowledge we have in front of us. We need to honor the anger and fear that staff is feeling. However, while we need to recognize signs and symptoms of psychosocial distress and manage appropriately, let us make sure we do not over-pathologize our suffering and immediately go down the road of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders”, said Dr. Cunningham.
Instead of starting from a place of weakness and the victim narrative of PTSD, the Post Traumatic Growth model looks at what one is doing that works and is good, asking what are we learning from this experience to grow, and trusting that the answer to move forward is within us. A Peer to Peer support model builds upon the trust, camaraderie and solidarity nurses have amongst one another that often is lacking or takes time to develop when working with another mental health professionals like a social worker or psychologist.
A goal of Dr. Cunningham is to get the media to recognize nurses as thought leaders among non-health care peers and the public. Dr. Cunningham believes it is critical to begin with nurses connecting with nurses. “If you look at Pablo Picasso’s early work, it was founded in the realism of his time. He progressively moved toward abstraction. Nurses need to use our nursing connection as a springboard into abstraction- the interprofessional realm. Beginning with our roots as a springboard to jump from and move forward, “said Dr. Cunningham.
Dr. Cunningham is a sought-after public speaker and has been very successful leveraging media to get his messaging out to the public. You can see Dr. Cunningham on the TEDx stage and giving keynotes, workshops, and coaching on his speaker website page.
Call to Action
Build upon strengths instead of focusing on fear and weaknesses. Resiliency is a process built upon forgiveness, humility, courage and begins with the celebration and authentic recognition of our frontline workers.