When it comes to work-life balance, Dr. Carol Cunningham has taken the concept to a whole new level.
The first Black female State Medical Director for emergency medical services (EMS) in the nation, who works as a board-certified emergency physician at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, served as the site co-medical director of the federal-supported mass vaccination clinic at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is an associate professor of emergency medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, is also a working back-up singer and a Board of Trustees and charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where she serves on a committee that oversees the Hall’s annual induction ceremony.
The Center for Homeland Defense and Security alum (Executive Leaders Program cohort 1101) has been invited to the White House several times and met President George W. Bush in the Oval Office, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a fellow Cleveland Browns fan, at a private luncheon during the NCAA’s March Madness tournament, and has also hung out with the likes of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and The Supremes’ Mary Wilson.
And her beloved 44-year-old teddy bear, Maynard, who is named after jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and accompanies the lifelong bachelorette nearly everywhere, shares in every accomplishment.
Through it all, Cunningham stays firmly grounded in the unforgettable advice from her hero and late father, Percy Cunningham. To wit, “No. 1, you have to put people first. Have a positive impact on people and don’t try to be famous.”
Describing herself as an “adult version of a hyper-active kid,” Cunningham said she thrives on the demands of both her groundbreaking career and extracurricular activities, particularly everything she does related to music.
“I hate to be bored,” she said.
In a recent email, Cunningham noted the importance of “encouraging our colleagues in government to embrace having a ‘flip side’ to their professional duties as it provides a healthy and essential balance to life.”
Despite her many and varied career accomplishments, Cunningham still regularly works lengthy emergency department shifts, and that intensified during the recent Omicron-driven COVID-19 surge when she covered for a staff thinned by three doctors out on maternity leave by working Thanksgiving and Christmas. She sometimes works for two weeks straight while navigating a three-hour roundtrip commute and a few hours of sleep. And all that is in addition to the demands of her position as the State Medical Director for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, Division of EMS, which she has filled since 2004.
The state medical director position is contracted and budgeted for 40 hours a month, but she said it takes far more of a commitment in time and effort than that, and the program budget regularly falls short. But she described the position as the “least paid and most impactful” of any she has held.
She has also served on national advisory bodies including the National EMS Advisory Council, and remains in active service with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate’s First Responder Resource Group and the Board of Directors of the Committee for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care.
Cunningham was the first woman to receive the American Academy of Emergency Medicine’s James Keaney Leadership Award, and recently was selected as the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient of her medical school alma mater, the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and as the 2022 Women of Achievement Award honoree from Lakeland Community College where she serves as medical director for the school’s EMT and paramedic programs.
While she has excelled in her profession, Cunningham says music is as much of a passion and calls it “one of the top influences in my life.”
“Music,” she said, “is my fuel.”
Cunningham said she started learning to play piano at the age of 4 and she’s been involved with music ever since. She played clarinet in elementary school, played in a jazz ensemble and in her high school marching band, and says she “can’t imagine life without” that experience.
While attending Case Western Reserve University, Cunningham played keyboards professionally and also worked as a DJ at Cleveland’s 2 No. rock and roll radio station, interviewing the Police during their first U.S. tour.
In the 1990s, Cunningham helped get a petition signed to locate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and attended the September 1995 ribbon-cutting as a charter Donor Circle member, which she said required her to scrimp and save to afford the membership dues. She became a member of the Hall’s Board of Trustees and said the “parties are great” but she’s proudest of the Hall’s global support for school music programs including her involvement with “Toddler Rock,” which includes her own personal Career Day presentations to Cleveland-area elementary schools that combine both emergency medicine and music.
Cunningham, who serves on the Hall’s Education Committee, calls it “one of the most impactful public service” experiences of her life on the flip side.
In addition, she serves on the Hall’s Induction Host Committee and has been to nearly every induction ceremony since its inception including those held in Los Angeles and New York.
And she describes herself as “so passionate about music that it’s nothing for me to fly across the country for a concert.”
Her passion and association with the Hall have led her to rub elbows with many very famous musicians, several of whom have become treasured personal friends.
As a member of the Induction Host Committee, Cunningham attends the private Chairman’s Dinner and after-party where she meets many of the inductees and occasionally even drives them around town or to the airport. She performed, impromptu, at the 2021 Chairman’s Dinner in the popular Garage exhibit space.
Her interest in contemporary art as a collector introduced her to Slick, who had created a piece of art that intrigued Cunningham. When Cunningham asked to discuss the piece, Slick called her. One thing led to another and Slick, who had missed joining the Cleveland Youth Orchestra’s tribute to Jefferson Airplane following an invitation from Cunningham, invited her as a guest to a private lunch at her art show in California. Cunningham flew to California for lunch with Slick, gave her several deeply appreciated items from the Rock Hall, purchased a painting upon which Slick personalized with a note on the back, and took a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C., changing into a business suit at the airport in advance of her morning meeting.
Cunningham met Wilson for dinner one night in Cleveland, taking the former Supremes singer and Caprice Bragg, a former vice president at the Hall, to a restaurant where Cunningham is known and provided discreet security for her high-profile guests.
After dinner, they were singing the Supremes hit, “Stop in the Name of Love,” as they walked out of the restaurant and she said a homeless man told them, “You girls are good. You sound just like the Supremes.”
She’s also friends with another big supporter of youth music education, jazz musician Branford Marsalis, who once told her the demise of publicly funded music and art programs is having a devastating effect on youth, particularly as evidenced by the escalating incidence of gun violence. “When you raise kids without culture,” he said, “it should be no surprise that you end up with uncultured adults.”
To that end, Cunningham created the first endowed scholarship at her high school alma mater, Maple Heights, and named it the Melfi-Peck-Tate scholarship after her high school marching and jazz band director, philosophy teacher, and physics teacher, respectively, to thank and honor them.
In addition to her groundbreaking medical career and musical adventures, Cunningham’s teddy bear, Maynard, is the other great passion in her life. A gift for her high school graduation, Maynard is a “really, really special bear,” Cunningham said, who’s considered a member of the family and whose motto is, “Let’s make the world a better place, one teddy bear at a time.”
A very pampered bear, Maynard gets a “boys’ night out” on his birthday every June that includes a private dugout suite at a Cleveland Indians game (the baseball team is now known as the Guardians).
But none of Cunningham’s accomplishments would have been possible without her Dad, she says. Her father, an intensely patriotic Army veteran who worked graveyard shifts, never missed one of her recitals, she said, and taught her the value of hard work, education and public service. She said one thing he never taught his daughter was to think or say “I can’t.”
She remembers her father taking she and her sister to the 1964 NFL Championship game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, and explaining why the crowd was segregated by race when, as a preschool-aged little girl, she noticed the stadium usher directing people to different places. He held her hand and, with tears welling up in his eyes that would have earned him an Emmy Award, looked at her and said, “There are laws that exist in this country that won’t allow them to sit with us. It’s a shame. We have the best seats in the house and it is terrible that those poor people are not allowed to sit with us. We need to change the law so they can sit with us in the good seats.”
As a father, he never allowed anyone to plant in his daughter’s mind a sense of inferiority based upon race, gender, or other factors, and he ensured that the bar for the knowledge, capabilities, goals, and dreams that she hoped to achieve had no limit, Cunningham said. He infused her with a spirit of empowerment that gave her wings to fly anywhere with a heart overflowing with courage, she added.
“People have said I’ve broken so many glass ceilings,” Cunningham said. “It’s all because of my Dad.”
Her father’s brother, Dr. Emmett Cunningham—her godfather and favorite uncle—was also a big influence on her life and eventual career, she said.
Despite being accepted at Harvard when she was in high school, Cunningham said she realized her family couldn’t afford to send her there and settled on Case Western Reserve University instead. Years later, after her father passed away and she completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, she visited her father’s grave to tell him she had finally made it to the vaunted school.