Her interest in babies began in Iceland when her first son, Gabriel, was born. The Red Cross volunteers who worked in labor and delivery fascinated Stewart, but she couldn’t find a similar opportunity in this country. When the military moved her former husband to Hampton Roads, she enrolled in TCC’s sonography program with plans of being an ultrasound technician.
Stewart immediately took to the anatomy and physiology classes, but three days into the radiology portion, she was back in the office of advisor Penny Lewis.
“What else can I do?” she asked. It was after discussions with Lewis that the idea of being a physician was born.
“I had the best guidance counselor; she was phenomenal,” Stewart said of Lewis, who still works at TCC today as the UVA coordinator of recruitment and academic services. “She told me, ‘You’ve really already decided.’ She helped make it possible.”
After earning her associate of science at TCC, Stewart tackled William and Mary followed by medical school at EVMS. She finished her residency at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in 2002 and then her fellowship at the University of Virginia in 2005.
“I tell everybody to start with a small college because the teachers are really interested in you,” said Stewart, a former science tutor and teaching assistant at TCC who was an officer in Phi Theta Kappa and the biology club. “They help you in so many ways, and the small class size is so beneficial.”
Stewart calls being a neonatologist — essentially an intensive care doctor for babies — the best job in the world, one filled with rollercoaster moments. Some are sad, but most are joyful.
A month into her career, she witnessed what she calls a miracle that continues to affect how she goes about her business. She was caring for a baby born at 34 weeks with an Apgar score of 1. The Apgar is the first test given to a newborn.
“It was clear the baby wasn’t alive,” she says.
With no signs of life, brain waves or movement, withdrawing life support seemed like the obvious option. The family agreed, but the grandmother asked to start a prayer chain first.
“On the third day, the parents came in, and somehow the baby was there,” Stewart recalls. “Three days of not being there and then she was there. That’s a miracle in itself that still gives me chills. Two years later, she walks into the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), this 2-year-old walking and talking and not a single thing is wrong with her.”
While Stewart has had to grieve at times during her job, it’s what she calls the “NICU graduates” that energize her. Stewart has also found time to give back to TCC as a founding member of the alumni board.
“That’s where I got my start,” she says. “So it will always be my school.”