Wife of JSO lieutenant who died of COVID says husband struggled for weeks

Lisa Cunningham doesn’t understand the hesitancy of some to get vaccinated for coronavirus

Lisa Cunningham says, there are days that are still a struggle, living without the love of her life.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s been one year since Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Chris Cunningham died from COVID-19 while on the job. At the time, vaccines were not available.

Cunningham’s wife, Lisa, says she doesn’t understand the hesitancy of some when it comes to getting vaccinated after she watched her husband struggle with the virus for weeks.

“This past year has just been unbelievable,” Lisa Cunningham said as she smiled and shook her head.

She’s gotten good at smiling in the face of trouble, but as News4Jax talked more with Lisa Cunningham about her life since the death of her husband, it was clear the deep void his death has left.

When we last sat down with Mrs. Cunningham for an interview, it had been just three months since her husband had died after contracting COVID-19 while on duty.

Since then, she said, she’s baffled by all the hesitancy of even family members to get a coronavirus vaccine.

Lisa Cunningham

“The ones that didn’t have a vaccine ended up in the hospital,” she said of a handful of family members who all attended a relative’s birthday party with her.

Referencing others who have chosen not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Mrs. Cunningham said: “Many of them do know, you know, what happened to Chris and for whatever reason they’re still convinced that propaganda plays into the vaccine and I’m really not understanding.”

In the lieutenant’s honor, Lisa Cunningham finished decorating his man cave for him -- a backyard garage Lt. Cunningham planned to use to refurbish old cars. It now sits as a memorial to her husband, filled with his accolades and all the tributes she and her family received locally and abroad when he died in August of last year.

Since then, Mrs. Cunningham has achieved many certifications in health and wellness, to add free spa treatments to her business -- Healthy Solutions. Those free services she provides for the disadvantaged in her community on Jacksonville’s Northwest side.

Lisa Cunningham explained that this was always part of the plan she had with her husband’s support -- providing for those who need it most. It’s a plan that began shortly after the family moved to the Garden City neighborhood about nine years ago.

That plan now motivates her to continue the work she and her husband started together, like a complimentary facial and massage we watched her provide for 73-year-old area resident Evelyn Bankhead, who just won her yearlong battle with cancer.

“You’re still here in my heart so your life is within me,” she said, remembering the love of her life. “So we’re going to do this walk and continue to make a difference even more so now than ever!”

Mrs. Cunningham has also helped fill some of the void with a service dog she named Chris that just happened to be born, on her birthday -- the same day her husband died.

The family's dog, Chris.

“It’s how I honor Chris,” she said. “I get to say Chris! Christopher! His name is still called in my home.”

One year later, little Chris is much bigger, dawning a police badge on his collar.

Mrs. Cunningham also has quite the list of people in the community that she regularly checks on, including area resident Jerome Mathis, who has known the family since the couple started their outreach services in the community.

“Do you know when some people say, ‘give you the shirt off their back?’ This man gave you, he would give you his best shirt,” Mathis said of Lt. Cunninghnam, who he considers a true friend.

“They just adopted me, like, adopted me,” he said, clutching his chest in reverence. “We just clicked, you know?”

Jerome Mathis

Mathis got emotional as he talked about the time the lieutenant gave him a old riding lawnmower outside the C&L Professional Care and Rehabilitation Services building on Moncrief Dinsmore Road. It’s an outreach facility the couple bought to provide access for the disadvantaged to everything from medical attention to computer skills.

Mathis explained that after he was handed a key to the mower, Lt. Cunningham said: “You make me one promise. You go out there you make all the money you want!”

But for the Cunninghams, giving back meant more than just handing out freebies.

Mathis said the couple made people feel self-worth, like the time he says Lt. Cunningham invited him to a private barbecue outside the social services building. Unbeknownst to Mathis, most of the people on the guest list were Jacksonville police officers.

“I got here, wasn’t nothing but the whole police force back there. I’m thinking, hold up!” Mathis laughed. “You got me here with all these officers. I said, I better not have no warrants! Seriously. Made me feel welcome no matter what. He included me. No matter. This guy here, is awesome.”

Continuing that legacy is the promise Lisa Cunningham has made to her husband, which also helps her.

“Take my eyes off of me. Take my eyes off of my sadness to see someone else smile,” she explained with tears in her eyes. “It’s unbelievable to see when you make a difference in someone else’s life.”

About the Author:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.