Dr. Lynette Jattan-Cunningham did not always plan to be a physician. However, a strong lifetime of faith put her on a path to becoming one of the most beloved pediatricians in the Covington-Conyers area.
Dr. Lynette Jattan-Cunningham almost died when she was 17. Roughly five decades later, she still bears a scar near her eyebrow that reminds her of her battle with tetanus as a teenager living on the island of Trinidad. Tetanus causes extreme muscle spasms, which Jattan-Cunningham describes as leaving her “stiff as a board.” When her father was trying to help her out of bed one day, she fell and struck her head, causing the scar.
“Back then, they treated tetanus in a dark room,” she said. “There were 16 tetanus patients in that one hospital room, and I’m the only one who survived. I got it from picking at a scab with my father’s pocket knife.”
After many weeks passed with his daughter in the hospital, Jattan-Cunningham’s father decided to take her home. He patiently taught her how to walk again, and she eventually recovered fully. Always an excellent student with a deep love of learning, she found herself bored with life on the island. Her parents owned a grocery store, and as the oldest girl of nine children, she was tasked with helping to care for her younger siblings.
“I was fed up being at home at the time,” she said. “All I was thinking was that I wanted to be somebody. I had a friend from school who was going to college in Canada. I talked to her and decided I wanted to do that, too. I’m not sure how it happened, but I talked to her on a Wednesday, and by Saturday, I had a plane ticket to Canada.”
“My kids were convinced that Dr. J could fix anything, and I think it’s because she always took the time to listen.”Kathy Hutchins
When Jattan-Cunningham arrived at Concordia University, she was only eligible to take evening courses. Unfortunately, to keep her student visa, she was required to take daytime classes. As a result, she took typing and shorthand during the day to meet the visa requirements. She easily earned her first degree in biochemistry and started thinking and praying about what to do with it.
“I really went just because I wanted a degree,” she said. “Then when I got it, I realized I didn’t want to work in a lab. Medicine was one of the paths I could take next, so I did.”
Jattan-Cunningham returned to the islands, this time to Jamaica to attend the University of the West Indies. After completing her medical degree, she worked for a few years in Trinidad. Always eager for a new adventure, she moved to England to practice as a dermatologist. She returned home after one year.
“When I went back to Trinidad, I didn’t realize that being a dermatologist there mostly meant taking care of elderly people’s foot sores. Dealing with old feet all day made me realize I wanted to go into pediatrics instead,” she said with a laugh.
Jattan-Cunningham completed her pediatric residency at Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1995, she joined Conyers Pediatrics and worked with Dr. Nora Patonay at the Wellbrook Circle location. Later, Jattan-Cunningham moved to the Brown Bridge Road facility in Covington, all while helping to raise some of her nieces and nephews. The deeply committed Christian remained single until the children graduated from high school.
“I was so busy with my career and helping raise my siblings’ children that I didn’t have time for a relationship,” she said. After they were all in college, she joined a faith-based dating site and soon met her future husband, Ralph Cunningham. “He’s a family man, and that was important to me. When I met his family, I knew he was the one.”
The couple married when she was 49 years old. They later adopted Jattan-Cunningham’s great-niece, Katherine, and the doctor found herself balancing parenthood and a full-time career again.
Being in practice for 27 years allowed Jattan-Cunningham to provide care for multiple generations in the same families. When the practice announced her retirement on Facebook in June, the comments were filled with people wishing her well but also expressing sadness over her departure. Parents and patients came in droves to a reception held to celebrate her service to the community.
“Dr. Jattan was our pediatrician for many years and she had such good rapport with my daughters, even from an early age,” former Newton County resident Kathy Hutchins said. “What stood out most about her is that she always let the child have a voice about what was going on with their health, and that is such an important skill to have in life. My kids were convinced that Dr. J could fix anything, and I think it’s because she always took the time to listen.”
Jattan-Cunningham’s decision to become a pediatrician was serendipitous for her patients and herself.
“My favorite thing about working with kids was being able to advise them to do the right thing, to encourage them to follow good rules,” she said. “They will listen to the doctor when they won’t listen to the parents. I encourage them to follow God, pray and be grateful.”
As with all her life decisions, Jattan-Cunningham spent time in prayer and consideration before retiring. Never one to sit still, within weeks she had started a four-year theology program and plans to continue working with the children at her church. Jattan-Cunningham does not believe kids have changed that much since she started practicing; the same cannot be said for parents. When asked what message she would like to leave with her beloved patients, she did not hesitate to respond.
“We need to help these kids today,” she said. “We need to teach them that we are nothing without God, and serving Him is the most important thing.”