Dr. Les Cunningham loves taking the road less traveled, whether when choosing a career path or exploring the back roads of East Tennessee on his Harley Davidson. This adventurous spirit has led to some pretty remarkable opportunities, most of which, Cunningham says, he never could have imagined as a child growing up in southern Mississippi.
“I went to medical school at the University of Mississippi to become a pediatrician, but I realized pretty quickly that specialty wasn’t the right fit for me,” he explains. “I was searching for something that would combine primary care with surgery and advanced technologies. I wasn’t sure where that search would lead, but I knew that was the path I needed to take.”
Ophthalmology wasn’t on Dr. Cunningham’s radar at that point, but being open to new people and new experiences is what ultimately led him to focus on a career in Ophthalmology. While completing a pediatric rotation in radiology, the outgoing Dr. Cunningham became fast friends with Dr. Art Adams (now a radiologist with LeConte Radiology in Maryville) whose brother was an Ophthalmologist.
He adds, “When I decided not to do pediatrics and was investigating other options, I talked to Art’s brother and realized that Ophthalmology offered everything I was looking for. I started applying to programs, completed an Ophthalmology residency, and then Art told me about the opening in Knoxville with Dr. Campbell. If I hadn’t done that rotation, met Art, and stayed in touch with him, who knows what I’d be doing or where I would be living now?”
Once Dr. Cunningham discovered Ophthalmology, he says, there was no second-guessing. He knew he had found his passion, and was determined to use his medical knowledge, curiosity about advanced technologies, and genuine interest in others to help people of all ages achieve the best possible vision. In 1991, Dr. Cunningham joined the Knoxville Ophthalmology practice started by Dr. J. Ed Campbell in 1952, and has been an integral part of a number of firsts achieved by the practice ever since, including: first in the Southeast to perform the Crystalens® procedure, a cataract replacement lens that is also designed to correct vision at all distances and East Tennessee’s first onsite Custom LASIK surgical facility, the Campbell Cunningham Laser Center.
While he’s accomplished a lifetime of goals in less than 25 years in Ophthalmology, Dr. Cunningham is quick to point out that in his precision, technology-based specialty, there is always something new to learn and accomplish. Some of his best teachers in this process, he explains, are his patients, many of whom he has treated over the course of his entire career.
“I can honestly say that the most rewarding part of what I am privileged to do is getting to know my patients and their families. I love talking to people, hearing their stories, and learning from them. I especially enjoy asking my patients who are in their 80s and 90s for advice about how to stay alert, active, and healthy. They have so much to teach us, if we are just willing to ask them and listen.”
He adds, “as a physician, I believe that making a personal connection with my patients really matters. I understand that everyone I treat is putting their trust in me to care for their vision. I never want to take that trust for granted. It’s what motivates me to never take a day off from giving my best.”
Most of those days start before dawn in order to arrive refreshed and ready for early surgeries. When Dr. Cunningham is able to take time off, he recharges by pursuing his passions: playing music with his three sons (two of whom are professional musicians), golfing, and spending time with his family. Whatever the activity, Dr. Cunningham usually finds a way to explore new destinations (like hiking Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro with his eldest son) and always makes time to stop and talk to people along the way.
And although he’s not planning to retire any time soon, Dr. Cunningham says that he eventually would like to spend more time using his ophthalmic skills where they are acutely needed. “There are 16 million people in the world who are blind due to cataracts,” he explains. “I can’t help them all, of course, but my dream is to one day be able to devote my energies toward providing vision care to those who don’t have access to treatment.”