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'Elvis has left the building:' Blount Memorial's Tom Cunningham died after hospitalization with COVID-19

“Elvis has left the building.”

For the past decade, Tom Cunningham of Seymour had performed as the singer and prayed with patients while working at local hospitals. For the past week, countless people prayed for him and his wife, Stephanie, after they were admitted to the intensive care unit at Blount Memorial Hospital with COVID-19.

When Tom died Sunday, Nov. 28, Stephanie said she knew those were the words — “Elvis has left the building” — he would have wanted her to use to share the news.

Blount Memorial said in a statement from Jennie Bounds, director of public relations and marketing, “Tom’s energetic presence is one that brought smiles and laughter to so many of our patients, visitors and staff, and for anyone who had the opportunity to meet him, it’s easy to see how he could leave a lasting impression with you.

“He will be missed by all of us at Blount Memorial, and we send our prayers to his family and friends,” she wrote.

“Tom was a very godly person, and every morning, he prayed over our staff in our morning huddle,” said Jeff Vickers, environmental services manager. “He felt his mission was to be here, and he felt there was a reason that he was supposed to be here. He took every opportunity he had to make someone’s day better, and for that reason, so many people in this hospital knew and loved him.”

Cunningham had worked at the University of Tennessee Medical Center for eight years before leaving in 2020. At Blount Memorial, he told The Daily Times early this year, he felt able to pray more openly.

Elvis emerges

Stephanie said it was “God’s orchestration” on the day in 1983 when they met at a Pizza Hut. After a recent breakup with a boyfriend she had been hesitant to go out among friends, but her mother encouraged her to go.

Tom was sitting in a booth by himself waiting for his pizza, and when she stood up to leave, he winked at her.

After making eye contact, she went out to her car. “I just looked up at the sky and I said, ‘What the heck.’ Well, I went back in there and just walked over and sat down. I said, ‘Hello,’ and his eyes all lit up.”

They talked for a while before she gave Tom her phone number, and she told him that he’d have to meet her parents before they went anywhere.

The encounter wasn’t how either would usually behave, she said. Two years later they married.

Their daughter, Sarah Marie Baldwin now, was just 3 or 4 when she encouraged Tom to dress up as Elvis for a fall festival at Valley Grove Baptist Church one year. “That’s all it took,” Stephanie said. “People couldn’t believe how much he looked like Elvis.”

Tom realized that through Elvis’ gospel music, he could use that as a ministry to reach people.

For about two decades, Stephanie and Tom went to nursing homes, churches and other places to sing. She would start with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn tunes. “Not many people get to open for Elvis,” she said.

Their last performance was more than a year ago. Stephanie said Tom had been suffering emotionally and physically, with body pains, inflammation and headaches. He also was depressed after his father’s death by suicide in 2008, she said. “He dealt with a lot.”

People who saw the positivity he projected never realized how he suffered, Stephanie said.

“He loved to love on people and encourage people,” she said. One day when she saw him staring out the window and asked what was wrong, he said there were so many hurting people whom he wanted to help. She assured Tom that he did help people, by talking to them and praying with them.

With the pain he experienced, he sometimes told her that he was tired and ready to go. “I have a peace about this,” Stephanie said the day after his death, saying she believes God eased Tom from his suffering.

When they entered the hospital, Stephanie said, she sent a message to their daughter saying that with all he had been through, “I don’t look for him to fight.”

Before he was taken off the ventilator, the hospital set up an iPad in his room so she could see him and “say my piece over him,” Stephanie said.

Tom would turned 57 on Christmas Day.

Call 911

Before Tom became ill, he knew Blount Memorial Hospital was considering an employee vaccine mandate and was wondering what he would do. Stephanie said she told him, “’You’ll know what to do when the time comes,’ but it never came. God made that choice for him.”

Stephanie said she had chosen not to be vaccinated because of her other health issues.

Tom began feeling ill around Nov. 4 and stayed home from work, according to Stephanie. On Nov. 10 he tested positive for COVID-19 at a clinic. Stephanie said she was not tested but cared for him at home with rest and fluids. She noticed that she was tired and would have to rest too.

“On Nov. 20th, he said, ‘Call 911. I’m ready to go to the hospital,’” she said. “I didn’t know they were bringing me too, but apparently I was as sick as he was.”

At the hospital she also tested positive for COVID-19.

“Shortly after that he was put on a ventilator,” she said.

“I have a strong faith in my Lord,” she said, noting that she was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and had a stem cell transplant. “I’ve seen God heal me three or four times from different ailments, and I feel sure he’s going to get me through this.”

“I’m just going to be a strong witness for the Lord, and I trust he’s going to get me through this, one way or another,” Stephanie said while still in the hospital Monday and receiving oxygen. “It’s just going to take a lot of hard work.”

“It’s a demon disease,” she said.

On Nov. 11, Blount Memorial announced with four other hospitals in East Tennessee that they would require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of a mandate from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

To comply with the federal mandate, employees must receive their first dose by Dec. 5. Bounds said she was unable Monday, Nov. 29, to say how many BMH employees were vaccinated, responding to questions from The Daily Times that “they would take some time to get answered.”

On Monday, Nov. 29, Blount Memorial Hospital reported having 10 patients with COVID-19, three of whom had been vaccinated.

Local business owners thank community for support over holiday shopping weekend

Locally owned businesses in Foothills Mall are thanking customers after a massive weekend of shopping.

Local business owners said they exceeded expectations for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday as the holiday shopping season officially got underway.

“We blew it out of the water this weekend. Friday was the best sales day we’ve had in the four years we’ve been in business,” Gentry Mercantile owner Barbara Gentry said. “Saturday and Sunday also both increased over last year, so it was great, it was really great.”

Gentry Mercantile was not the only small business in Foothills Mall that benefited from the biggest shopping weekend of the year.

“We did really, really well on Black Friday. We had a lot of new customers and there was just a really great energy, not just in my store but throughout the mall,” So Beautifully You Boutique owner Bobby Phillips said. “Small Business Saturday was a good day too.”

Owners from both businesses stressed the importance of big sales days like Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

Phillips said the holiday shopping weekend helped his store navigate some of the challenges that smaller, locally owned businesses often face.

“As a small businesses with a small online presence, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday are very important for us,” Phillips said. “They help give us that little ‘oomph’ so we can continue on through the holidays and the New Year when things get slower.”

Gentry said because of the massive turnout over the weekend, her store will continue to thrive through all of next year.

“This weekend, the support we got — it was huge,” Gentry said. “I honestly don’t think I was prepared. I expected a bigger crowd than last year but I wasn’t expecting what hit us. I don’t see us struggling for the year to come.”

While Gentry and Phillips celebrated the success of the holiday shopping weekend, both were quick to thank the community for its overwhelming support.

Phillips thanked not only his customers but everyone who shopped at Foothills Mall, expressing gratitude that so many people put their money back into Blount County, rather than making the drive to the massive shopping centers in Knoxville.

“The success of So Beautifully You is dependent on the community and I’m so thankful that we have their support,” Phillips said. “It was so nice to see the community come out and support the businesses here. Not just the small businesses but the big stores too. It was great to see people stay here and shop in Maryville instead of going to West Town Mall or Turkey Creek.”

Gentry expressed similar sentiments, thanking Blount County residents for not only showing up and shopping over the weekend, but for supporting her store throughout the pandemic.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you to the community. Ninety percent of the people I talked to said that they specifically wanted to support local business and shop local and I saw more of that this year than ever before,” Gentry said. “It’s huge for us. We have not lost any money during the pandemic, which is tremendous, and it’s really all because Blount County and people in the surrounding counties have been so supportive.