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Trail blazer KEMH doctor dies at 86

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Keith Cunningham, the former director of pathology at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital (File photograph)
Keith Cunningham, the former director of pathology at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital (File photograph)
Keith Cunningham, the former director of pathology at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital (File photograph)

A former director of pathology at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital has died.

Keith Cunningham, the hospital’s first Black staff doctor when he joined in 1970, was 86.

Dr Cunningham dedicated his career to the development pathology in Bermuda.

He also spearheaded sickle cell anaemia screening and worked to bring the island’s blood bank up to international standards.

He played a key role in the development forensic pathology in Bermuda, especially for victims of sexual assaults.

Dr Cunningham was appointed an Officer of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2004 for his services to to the island.

Known to hospital staff as KC, he retired in April 2004 – but stepped in as Acting Chief of Pathology for years after.

Wesley Miller, the chief of staff at the Bermuda Hospitals Board, said Dr Cunningham was an exceptional doctor with a strong memory.

He added: “Equally memorable was his sense of humour and the jokes that would have you give a chuckle even days after you were with him.”

Dr Miller said Dr Cunningham was known for his compassion, and generous with his time and knowledge.

He added Dr Cunningham was also “forward thinking and introduced quality metrics and standards, long before it was the norm”.

Marva Vanessa Phillips-Williams, a pathologist, said Dr Cunningham was her mentor and had “welcomed me home with open arms as a fellow rare Bermudian pathologist”.

Donna Stowe, a hospital mortuary technician, said Dr Cunningham often sat and talked to her after they had worked on traumatic cases.

She added: “It wasn’t until several years after he had retired that I realised he didn’t do that because he needed any details of the cases.

“He was debriefing me, giving me mental health support so that I could move on after particularly difficult cases, like murders.

“That’s an example of how much he genuinely cared.”

Dr Cunningham excelled at Central School in Pembroke – now Victor Scott Primary School – from 1940 to 1945, and the Berkeley Institute from 1946 to 1950.

But he later said there were problems under racial segregation because of a lack of science education in his early school years.

Dr Cunningham was inspired by the example of Thomas Neville Tatem, the maths teacher and deputy principal of the Berkeley Institute.

He attended the University of the West Indies and the University of London from 1953 to 1960.

He met his future wife, Beverly, in Jamaica, and the couple had three children – Jacqui, Ingrid and David.

Dr Cunningham started as a clinical pathologist in KEMH in 1970 and brought extensive experience from hospitals overseas.

He had worked in an acting capacity in the role when pathologist Terence Wickham was on leave.

As Dr Cunningham, a haematologist, specialised in blood diseases.

He researched sickle cell anaemia in Bermuda and helped develop a screening programme from birth for the hereditary disease.

Dr Cunningham pioneered the detective work of forensic pathology soon after he joined KEMH and delivered crucial evidence in court for the police.

He told The Royal Gazette in 2000: “Little did we know we were really breaking ground.”

The new Sexual Assault Response Team paid tribute to Dr Cunningham for his lead role in its creation the same year.

He also worked with the Bermuda Red Cross, which managed the island’s blood bank and blood donations until 2009, when the service moved to the hospital.

Ann Spencer-Arscott, the executive director of the charity, said she remembered him for “the sparkle in his eye, his laugh, and the positive vibes he sent out”.

She added: “He went above and beyond – a lovely man who was passionate about Bermuda, about health, about his family.”

Barbara Cooper, a nurse and former chairwoman of the Bermuda Red Cross who worked at the Blood Donor Centre there and when it moved to KEMH, also worked alongside Dr Cunningham.

She said: “Interesting things happened at that time, many involving Dr Cunningham. He was very knowledgable, with a great wit, and never hesitated to pass his knowledge on to other people.”

The two also gave time to the Bermuda Junior Service League charity and the Bermuda Festival.

Ms Cooper said: “Dr Cunningham and I were involved in getting the first apheresis unit for the donor centre, which was very expensive – the hospital’s budget didn’t include it.”

The high-tech machine separates blood components.

Bill and Sheila Kempe donated the money for the device in 1998 after Ms Kempe’s life was saved by blood donations following chemotherapy.

Dr Cunningham requested they provide an apheresis unit for the Blood Donor Centre.

Ms Cooper said: “Two days later, there was a knock on my door.

“It was Bill, with a cheque for the full cost of the machine. It was a bonanza, not just for the hospital but Bermuda.”

She added: “Dr Cunningham is a son of the soil who made many contributions to the island. He will be missed – not only for that, but as a good friend.”

Keith Courtenay Cunningham, the former director of pathology for King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, was born on April 12, 1934. He died on January 8, 2021. He was 86.

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Published January 16, 2021 at 10:18 am (Updated January 16, 2021 at 10:18 am)

Trail blazer KEMH doctor dies at 86

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