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Behind the White Coat: Dr. Cunningham’s dreams in the sky offer adventure with a purpose

Advance With MUSC Health
November 29, 2021
Dr. Cunningham

Not everyone can say they've flown above 70,000 feet in a U-2, done barrel rolls in a T-38, and landed on a cargo ship from a hovering search-and-rescue helicopter. Still, those are examples of the kind of adventure that are found in the life of Michelle Cunningham, M.D., a board-certified family physician at MUSC Health and flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

Dr. Cunningham piloting an aircraft.

It's a life that sometimes brings the unexpected and always offers adventure with purpose.

"During the first few months of COVID, many military units organized flyovers to recognize the hard work of the local health care teams," she remembers. "I was privileged to be part of a four-ship T-38 flyover of the Sacramento area hospitals in May of 2020."

A flight surgeon is a physician who provides a mix of primary care and occupational health for people - like pilots, aircrew, and air traffic control - who deal with flying. "Normal" medical problems can have very different effects in unusual environments, Cunningham says, which flight surgeons are trained to recognize and treat accordingly.

"For example, someone with 'just allergies' can generally suffer through a few days of symptoms as treatment is getting started," she explains. "However, a pilot might not be able to fly during those first few days because his or her ears might not be able to equalize through the different altitudes."

Dr. Cunningham

Flight surgeons are also concerned with a flight crew's medications, like sedating allergy medication, which could put a pilot at risk. They familiarize themselves enough with patients' jobs so that they can make solid aeromedical decisions to keep patients safe and able to continue military missions.

Originally from Rochester, Minnesota, Cunningham was drawn to family medicine through an early, memorable and positive experience with a family physician who took the time to listen to her concerns. "His diligence led to quick diagnosis and resolution of a heart arrhythmia that I had, which really impressed me as a teen," she says. "Throughout the rest of medical school, I realized that I wanted to focus on keeping people out of the hospital. Family medicine does this by focusing on preventive medicine and screenings and developing close relationships with our patients so that we can notice small changes before they become big problems."

Cunningham received her undergraduate degree from Saint Olaf, Minnesota (yes, of Golden Girls fame) and then graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, where she met her husband. At medical school, she also had her first taste of flight medicine during a two-week summer break Air Force course. That's when she knew that the combination of flying and medicine would be driving forces in her life, but she was just a kid when her interest in the military was sparked.

Dr. Cunningham

"I was obsessed with space and astronauts," she recalls. A piano and ukulele player, Cunningham opted to focus her college studies on pre-med and music rather than attend a military academy but would get her chance later with the military.

"When I found out that the military offered a scholarship to pay for medical school in return for service as a physician, I knew I had found the right way to follow my dreams," she says. "I received a scholarship through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which allowed me to go to medical school debt-free."

She completed her residency in family medicine in California at her top choice, David Grant Medical Center on Travis Air Force Base, which allowed her to go straight into flight medicine training right after residency graduation. "Flight medicine training was nine weeks of classroom learning and flying, which prepared me well for my next assignment at Beale Air Force Base," she says.

There, she served as a flight surgeon for four-and-a-half years before moving with her family - including a son and a daughter - to Charleston, where they're enjoying life without snow in April. Although, some things are the same as in her home state. "Mosquitos were just as much of a problem there," she laughs. "And everyone has heard of 'Minnesota nice,' and I feel right at home here in Charleston with the way everyone is so friendly."

When Cunningham isn't practicing medicine at her office in Charleston or in flight, she's usually running, gardening or knitting. She and her husband love to travel and were excited to take their kids to a different country for the first time this fall.

Dr. Cunningham in a helicopter.

Perhaps next time they get away, she'll fly them herself. "I’m taking flight lessons so that I can be a pilot, too," she says.

As for her day-to-day duties at MUSC, she enjoys keeping patients up-to-date on their necessary screenings, focusing on prevention and managing chronic diseases. "I like being able to develop a close relationship with my patients as we work through new or chronic diagnoses for better control," she says. "For example, things like diabetes, blood pressure, and mental health. I think it's a huge win when we can find a treatment that gives both the best medical care and fits the patient's goals at the same time. Family medicine and flight medicine both have that ability."

Because she loves all-things aviation, she also relishes the unique ability to offer Federal Aviation Administration physical exams. She says, "It's imperative to ensure our pilots are healthy so that they can keep themselves and their passengers safe in the skies."

To make an appointment with Dr. Cunningham, call 843-876-3151 or visit our website.

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Keywords: Primary Care