Sean Cunningham, DO, has overcome insurmountable obstacles to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Mercy Health Physician Partners West Olive.
“Breaking my back and neck wasn’t part of the plan, but I would say that it’s one of the things that led me to osteopathic medicine.”
Joining the military also wasn’t initially part of the plan for Cunningham, who started college right out of high school.
“After the first year, I received a letter from the bank telling me, ‘There’s no more money for you to attend school,’ so I joined the Air Force as a way to pay for college, back in 1998,” recalled Cunningham.
With his ultimate goal being medical school, Cunningham signed up for six years in the Air Force.
“My mom worked as a nurse for 35 years, so I had the roots of medicine within my family tree,” said Cunningham. “In medicine, you can help people, and I found that aspect rewarding.”
Cunningham rose through the ranks as an E5 Staff Sergeant in the Air Force and worked in the Special Ops, which are like Navy Seals and the Green Berets in the other branches of military.
“We would do unbelievable and physical things, such as scuba diving, mountain rescue and deep ocean rescue,” said Cunningham. “We would train for all sorts of scenarios.”
His time in the military helped teach him worldly views, and “helps me handle stressful situations,” said Cunningham. Deployed on four different occasions, Cunningham spent a total of 18 months being deployed.
He credits his time in the military for granting him more life experiences, and a common bond with veterans. “The camaraderie within the military is unbelievable.”
In one single instance, all this changed for Cunningham during a parachute accident while deployed in 2004, when he broke both his back and his neck. “I was never paralyzed, thank goodness, but it put an end to my Special Ops career.”
Although it put an end to one aspect of his life work, the terrible accident opened his eyes to another career path: Osteopathic Medicine.
“While I was recovering, in between the many surgeries and healing, I was introduced to osteopathic medicine and the medical manipulation techniques that it uses,” said Cunningham.
“Osteopathic medicine was what got me back on track to healing, and I wanted to help others the same way I was helped.”
Cunningham continued along his journey to becoming a physician and graduated from Midwestern University, Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. He married a woman from Michigan and made his home in West Michigan at Mercy Health Physician Partners in West Olive, joining the practice in August 2019.
“I loved what I was doing in the Special Ops, and never would have given that up willingly, but it has led me here, doing what I love for patients. I will always have issues, such as chronic pain, with my neck and back, but I feel like that is part of what helps me with my patients,” said Cunningham. “I hope to better understand some of the challenges that they face, especially with the current pain epidemic.”
Patients of Cunningham agree: “I specifically asked for a doctor who was a veteran, as I know we would be speaking the same ‘language,’” said Roy Sturdivant, 47, from Norton Shores, who served for six years in the Marine Corps Infantry.
“I feel very comfortable with Dr. Cunningham, and there has never been anything too embarrassing that I can’t discuss with him.”
Sturdivant has been a patient of Cunningham’s for two years, since his residency, and even followed him to his current office, Mercy Health Physician Partners West Olive.
“I know that he will also hold me accountable, like it is in the military,” said Sturdivant. “I have such comfort having Dr. Cunningham as my primary care doctor. He feels like family, my military family.
For more information on Cunningham and other Mercy Health Physician Partners, please visit FindAMercyHealthDoctor.com.
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