University of Virginia School of Nursing
"We all laugh in the same language," says Cunningham.

Cunningham - an actor, teacher, ER nurse, and formerly director of Clowns Without Borders - is an assistant professor of nursing and assistant director of the School's Compassionate Care Initiative. He earned the School's 'Decade Award' in 2016, its 'Global Visionary Award' in 2009, and the Loomis-Price Humanitarian Award from his alma mater, Columbia University, in 2016. He studies resilience, psycho-social support for healthcare providers, the benefits of artistic interventions in hospital settings.

  • You’re a professional clown AND a nurse AND a nursing professor. How do these things go together?

A clown I’ve worked with puts it best: “We all laugh in the same language.”  And I’d like to back that up with the idea that with laughter, learning thrives.  I believe that all three of these professions have much in common, and through these  commonalities we can recognize our interconnectedness—something our world desperately needs to do. 

  • Talk about your life before nursing – what you’d studied, where you’d worked, and ultimately how you decided to make the pivot.

Before nursing I worked as an actor. Some of the work was clown work, but much of it was working with small, regional theatre companies devising new shows and funky interpretations of the classics. I was fortunate to be able to perform in many cities around the U.S. and also internationally. I taught on the side in theatre programs and also picked up random gigs working at a bakery, for art schools and mowing lawns.

  • You’ve spent time in an Ebola treatment center in West Africa as a clinician, and seen places around the world where poverty and ill health are more the rule than the exception – somber, solemn places that leave many heavy hearted. What impact does work like that leave on you and your fellow clinicians?

My colleagues and I, who worked in Sierra Leone, were profoundly changed by what we witnessed while caring for Ebola patients. But we also witnessed indescribable resilience in the face of death and suffering, we witnessed impossible stories of survival, and unfortunately, we witnessed the damning effects of structural violence, health inequity and racism. 

I realized how we are all complicit in how resource-poor nations are viewed and treated by the resource wealthy world. But I am fired up by these realizations and hope that as a clinician and educator I can help change minds in my own country about the effects, both positive and negative, of humanitarian work.

  • How will your sensibilities flavor UVA’s Compassionate Care Initiative programs?

 Mindfulness practices have changed my life. They have allowed me to bear witness to suffering and joy, and they, quite frankly, have lowered my blood pressure and helped me enjoy the life I have in front of me. I’m excited to explore, share and better understand the work of the CCI. I’m also very interested in measuring what's “hard to measure.” 

  • You can juggle at will, and have some unusual paraphernalia throughout your office. Do you ever get that stuff out in class, at meetings, or just for fun? What’s the best trick you can do?

I can juggle three of most anything (although I’ve never tried chainsaws and jello is really tough to keep from falling apart).  There will probably be some instances where juggling will come in handy at class—but it hasn’t happened yet, this school year.  I’m learning some card tricks right now and I’m very proud of them.  The best trick is the one that makes someone laugh or feel better—I have a few, but I try my best to bring them out exactly when the time feels right.

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