“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.
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.
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.