A familiar face has faded into memory after Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Dunn, 51, of Dagsboro passed away Tuesday, Sept. 16. Frequently found in Little League dugouts, on Pop Warner sidelines and at Millville’s Sussex Family Practice, Dunn died from brain cancer, which had just been diagnosed in early August.
“He liked being a community doctor. He liked the fact that he knew all the patients’ names [not just as numbers],” said his brother, Christopher Dunn of Elkton Md. “He treated them with the utmost respect.”
It was his dream to have a practice at the beach, the “type of place could hang up a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign,” said his friend and pastor, Andy Ehlers of High Tide Church.
Born in Norfolk, Va., and formerly of New Castle County, Dunn is survived by his wife and children, Tammy (Ledford) Dunn, and Reagan and Scarlett.
Described as a gentleman, yet approachable and down to earth, “He showed up in sweatpants and tennis shoes, and he was ready to jump in,” said Cathy Schultz of Bethany Florist, who knew him for about five years through Lower Sussex Indians Pop Warner.
“The man did so many things behind the scenes, and I don’t think people realized,” Shultz said.
Dunn gave free sports physicals to children whose families couldn’t afford it; once stopped a child from choking on gummy candies; and even drove a Little League fan to and from his office to stitch a gash caused by a foul ball.
“This is a calling. This is not a job,” Ehlers said. “He just felt like he was a doctor, and he was always on. And if he could help somebody, that brought him great satisfaction.”
“He was just a hell of a nice guy,” Schultz said. “It’s a shame. He just touched so many people because he was so selfless. He was all about the kids. … Thank God he coached, because he was so sweet to the kids.”
Coaching Little League and rec basketball, Dunn kept a positive attitude. Instead of belittling a bad pitch, Dunn might say, “You are so focused that throwing a bad pitch doesn’t mess you up. That’s great,” Ehlers said.
The team doctor
Very interested in his son’s Pop Warner football team, Dunn always participated, from asking how to help Reagan improve or providing medical support at every game.
“Dr. Dunn was sort of our unofficial team doctor,” said coach Jim Gates, also a patient. “Every single time a child would go down on the field or get hurt … You would just see Dr. Dunn get up and go to the field, whether my team or another team. He would always go out to the field just to make sure those kids are OK.”
A doctor to the very end, Dunn slowly walked down to examine the injured arm of Gates’ own son “three days before he passed away. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Dr. Dunn would sit with those kids on the field the entire time, calm them down, calm the parents down. He was never asked to do it. That’s the kind of person he was. He just took it upon himself to do it,” Gates said.
The football field also witnessed what Gates believes to be one of Dunn’s proudest moments. During a game, positioned on the 1-yard line, center Reagan was switched to the quarterback position and scored his first and only touchdown.
“I went out to the field. I was crying. I got the game ball, gave it to Reagan, who ran up to the stands and gave it to his dad,” Gates said. “He was so proud that he was able to see his son, who was a very good football player, make a touchdown.”
That game ball attended Dunn’s memorial service a few weeks later, on Sept. 19. Some of the players were allowed to attend, as did the coaches, still wearing team jerseys.
“They felt protected by him. If Dr. Dunn’s here, everything is OK,” Gates said of his 10- to 11-year-old players. “Dr. Dunn was definitely part of our team, without a doubt. He was part of our league.”
Although a private man, he was very friendly, looked out for his siblings and “lived for” his wife and children.
An avid fan of the Washington Redskins and Mother Nature, Dunn was happy with his season tickets or a fishing pole in the Delaware bays.
“Growing up, I had Farrah Fawcett posters and racecars. He had ‘Fishes of the North Atlantic,’” Christopher Dunn said. “We knew he was gonna be a doctor for the time he was 10 years old.”
Dunn was a lifelong fixer, from hatching an abandoned blue jay egg as a child, to tinkering with his 1965 Pontiac convertible and going into medicine.
Dunn’s head nurse told heartfelt stories at the memorial service, such as when he helped a patient start her car, fiddling under the hood, still wearing a stethoscope.
Not afraid to go
Dunn’s faith allowed him to turn his attention outward when he was diagnosed. He was more concerned with his family and siblings.
“He was very secure in his faith, not afraid of what the next step would be,” Christopher Dunn said.
“This wasn’t the end for him, but the beginning. He would be far more alive in eternity,” Ehlers said. “It really just gave him peace to get through this time.”
“‘I don’t want my children to ever think I want to go, but I’m not afraid to go,’” Christopher Dunn remembered his brother saying. “‘I’m going to Heaven to wait for them, but I’m not afraid.’”
Honorable as a doctor, Ehlers said, Dunn closed his practice upon his diagnosis, concerned that the brain tumor might prevent him from giving patients his full focus or ability.
“He really loved people and cared about people,” chatting with patients at the grocery store or calling other hospital systems for his patients. “Things weren’t important to him. People were important to him,” Ehlers said.
Dunn was preceded in death by a brother, Lindsay Craft. He is also survived by his parents, Thomas and Norma Dunn, and a sister, Suzanne Heiss and her husband, Joel, all of Bel Air, Md.
Condolences may be sent online at Melson Funeral Services website. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested memorial contributions in his name to High Tide Church; P.O. Box 127; Dagsboro, DE 19939.
Dr. T. Jeffrey Dunn’s Sussex Family Practice office in Millville has closed.
All patient records are in the possession of a custodial doctor. The doctor’s name will be released within the next few weeks. Sussex Family Practice is unable to accept any records requests or non-urgent requests at this time. For prescription refills, patients should contact their pharmacy, and the pharmacy will contact a covering provider.
Call the office at (302) 539-8880 for more information.