Heart surgeon opts for Army life
At age 56, doctor says it's time to pay back society
By Peggy Peck
Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content.
Dr. Robert Stewart said he had always wanted to be a soldier and is fulfilling that desire.
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CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (MedPage Today) -- Dr. Robert Stewart has performed about 11,000 open-heart operations during his career as a cardiac surgeon, but on September 5 he will finally become what he wanted to be when he grew up -- a soldier.
At age 56, Stewart will start boot camp at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where he will rank among the oldest U.S. Army recruits since George Washington was signing up volunteers.
He has agreed to serve for four years. That, he says, "will bring me to age 60, the age that I think every heart surgeon should pause to assess the situation since I think that most of us have peaked at about that time."
The idea that a highly successful but graying heart surgeon would chuck his practice -- and the income that goes with it -- to enlist in the Army at a time when the nation is involved in a war may sound odd. But Stewart says the career move is a really a combination of payback and fulfilling a wish.
When Stewart was growing up in Flint, Michigan, where his father worked for 34 years at the Fisher Body plant, the future surgeon was imbued with a sense of national service.
"My father was a decorated soldier who fought at the Battle of the Bulge," Stewart said, taking a break from gardening at his home.
One moment stands out during the childhood years.
"My Dad was working in our yard, digging, which is pretty much what I've been doing today," he said. "A car full of guys -- maybe six or seven guys I had never seen -- pulled into the driveway. The guys got out of the car and saluted my Dad. These were guys he hadn't seen for years, but he was their sergeant in the war."
That moment, which Stewart witnessed as a 6-year-old, has been replayed in his mind many times over the years. It had such a powerful impact that he decided then that he wanted to be a soldier. His original ambition was go to West Point.
But by the time he was teenager, the world of cardiac surgery began making headlines. "Beginning about 1963, that was the period when cardiac surgery began taking on some relevance. There were pictures on the cover of Time and Life of Dr. [Denton] Cooley repairing babies' hearts," he says. At the same time, Stewart had a biology teacher who "really got me interested in biology."
That's when he started thinking about combining soldiering with medicine.
"I wrote a letter to the registrar at West Point asking if I could take pre-med there," he said. "I got a letter back informing me that West Point was not in the business of turning out doctors; it was in the business of turning out warriors."
So Stewart adjusted his plans and applied to Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Albion, Michigan, where he majored in biology. He finished in just three years, even though he also worked full-time as a surgical technician at Albion Hospital. He went directly from Albion to medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Once he graduated from medical school, he packed his bags and headed for the University of Alabama-Birmingham for his training in surgery, There he worked with Dr. John W. Kirklin, a legendary heart surgeon who helped develop a heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery possible.
He stayed in Alabama for more than nine years, for five years of general surgery training and four years of training in heart surgery.
During that time he was married and his children, a son and a daughter, were born. His first wife and his current wife are both nurses.
In 1982, he accepted a job at the Cleveland Clinic where he worked until 1998, when he moved to University Hospitals of Cleveland, where he continues to practice.
Yet, all during these years something was always tugging at him
"I always felt the need to pay back society for what has been a wonderful career," he said. "I've been privileged to do everything that I ever wanted to do or dreamed of doing. And the fact that I've been able to do so is a reflection of our society and the freedom we have here."
He says that his father "took a big chunk out of his life and suffered great hardships to preserve the lifestyle that we take for granted."
His desire to "do something" increased dramatically with the attacks on "9/11 and then when we got involved in Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq the need kept growing."
'I want to join the Army'
The situation crystallized when he was offered a job as a new division chief at yet another major academic institution. His wife Denise, a registered nurse, told him he should at least go forward with an interview, "so I penned a letter saying that I would be happy to interview for the job, but I didn't send it. I told her, 'This isn't what I want to do. I want to join the Army.' That was the solidifying moment for me; I knew what I wanted to do."
He said neither his wife, nor his two children, Kayla, a veterinarian in Cleveland, and Richard, an architect in Philadelphia, were surprised by his choice. "They have all been very supportive," he says.
But he wasn't sure that the Army would want him -- a 56-year-old heart surgeon -- so he turned to an expert for advice.
"I asked Ron Dziedzicki, who is the head of nursing at University if the Army would want an old heart surgeon. Ron, who is a colonel in the reserves, said he didn't think so, but he would look into it. A week later he got back to me and told me the Army was interested."
The Army had recently upped the age limit for recruits from 35 to 40, which the Army says allows them enough time to serve 20 years and be eligible for a pension.
"I had to sign papers agreeing that I would not be eligible for a pension," Stewart said, laughing. The enlistment process included the "most complete medical evaluation that I've ever had."
Months of paperwork came to fruition in late June when Stewart accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps. He said he is spending the remaining weeks of summer "continuing my surgical practice" and tying up loose ends in Cleveland.
His wife will remain in Cleveland until Stewart finishes 90 days of training in San Antonio.
"After I get my orders, we'll look for housing," said Stewart, who may be assigned for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington or the Army Medical Center at Landstuhl, Germany, "but there are no guarantees," he said.
Finally, when asked about the possibility of serving in Iraq during a time when the war has become unpopular with a growing number of Americans, Stewart says "the Army doesn't make policy. It follows the orders of the commander in chief."
But he makes it clear that he believes "the service we are providing in Afghanistan and Iraq is protecting America. The terrorists brought the war to this country on 9/11 and I think I probably feel the same way about 9/11 as my parents felt about Pearl Harbor."
With that, he picks up his shovel and heads once again for his garden to sow some final seeds.
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