Former Clown Empowers Compassionate Care

A doctor wearing a clown nose laughs with two girls who are also wearing clown noses

Dr. Timothy Cunningham is anything but conventional. The road that led him to medicine is not exactly what you would call normal.


Timothy Cunningham’s Story: From Clown to Nurse

You see, Dr. Cunningham started out as a clown. The organization Clowns Without Borders took him to over 20 countries, various war zones, and disaster-ridden places. During his travels, he saw the devastating effect of malnutrition and preventable disease, and it led him to pursue his master’s degree in nursing. He now works at the UVA School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor.

This past January, at 7:00 a.m., he came to speak to a group of Interventional Radiology (IR) nurses in our department, most of them armed with coffee, battling sleepiness. But everyone quickly woke up when Dr. Cunningham started talking. At one point, he even flipped himself upside down and stood on his head (much to the concern of all the safety-conscious nurses in the room).

Tim Cunningham, a former clown, now a nurse, sits on a glass staircase with three juggling pins balanced on his head.

Dr. Tim Cunningham (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Filled Up to Give More

Dr. Cunningham spoke to the IR nurses about the Compassionate Care Initiative (CCI), where he serves as Assistant Director. The CCI is an organization whose members believe compassion can be taught. They believe the entirety of the nursing staff and volunteers should be “learning concrete ways to insert compassion into every patient interaction” states their website. Nurses do this by learning to be resilient.

“If you’re more resilient, you’re going to give better care,” Dr. Cunningham explained to the group. He asked the nurses what resilience meant to them. One said, “You give all day, and you give the best of you to all these people. Resilience to me is how you fill yourself up so you can give more.”

And that’s exactly what Dr. Cunningham is trying to do: fill nurses up so they can give more. It’s tragic to note, but nationally 27% of nurses leave within their first year of nursing because they can’t handle the stress. And it’s no wonder this is true. Nurses often suffer from shock, stress, and emotional trauma as a daily part of their jobs. “When nurses get burned out, they don’t care compassionately,” Dr. Cunningham said.

How The Compassionate Care Initiative Helps Our Nurses

So how is CCI helping nurses become more resilient? For starters, they offer weekly drop-in sessions on topics including meditation, yoga, and T’ai Chi. Furthermore, they organize lectures on topics such as “Loving-Kindness and Equanimity in Healthcare” and host classes like basic self-defense. They advocate for break rooms where nurses can have a safe place to cry, calm down, or be alone for a few minutes if needed. They teach meditation and relaxation techniques to lower tension and improve focus. CCI focuses on helping nurses cope with the stress, trauma, and suffering that bombards them every day so that they are better able to care compassionately for the patients in their charge.

Read more about Dr. Timothy Cunningham’s story and his journey from clowning to medicine. For more information about what CCI offers to UVA nurses, check out their calendar and resources page.

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