“If she dies, you die.”
This was the statement that welcomed Amilu Stewart, MD, FACS, to the Colorado Springs, CO, emergency room, where she worked as a senior surgeon. The comment came from two sons whose mother had been admitted with a gangrenous gallbladder and needed surgery. “Now that is stress,” Dr. Stewart said.
In a June 2016 interview, Dr. Stewart admitted that she is able to laugh about the situation now, but at the time, it was not so funny. “Both men were a foot taller than me and were quite serious, even lifting me up by the elbows when they said it. I have often wondered if I would have been treated differently by them had I been a male surgeon.”
Despite these and other challenges facing a woman entering the surgical profession in the mid-20th century, Dr. Stewart found her career to be rewarding. She not only healed many patients but also helped to set a precedent for young women looking to begin their own medical careers.
The American College of Surgeons (ACS) Foundation proudly highlights her as a Mayne Heritage Society (MHS) member. The MHS recognizes Fellows who have provided a bequest or other planned gift of any size to the College through their estate plan.
Undeterred by cultural norms
From an early age, Dr. Stewart ignored the bias against women entering the medical profession. Raised on a Colorado ranch, Dr. Stewart knew as a teenager that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but she grew up when that goal was largely an unrealistic aspiration for a woman. “I was encouraged to pursue one of three careers: teacher, secretary, or housewife. In fact, my father was very against me even thinking about pursuing a career as a physician.” Undeterred, Dr. Stewart applied to Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, PA (now the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University), where she was employed as a technician in the surgical lab of open heart surgery pioneer, John H. Gibbons, MD, FACS. She was accepted into medical school in 1961, one year after completing her undergraduate studies. At that time, she also was a young wife and the mother of a one-month-old baby.
“Jefferson Medical College had been a male-only school for 125 years and had just decided to admit women. The percentage of women in medical school at that time was 6 percent. I was interviewed by three psychiatrists as there were no role models ahead of me, and they didn’t know what to do with me,” Dr. Stewart noted.
Dr. Stewart and seven other women were the first of their gender to graduate from Jefferson Medical College in 1965.* “I had a great education at Jefferson, and even had my second child as a junior medical student. I was back at school one week after delivering my child, as I would have lost my place in the class,” she said.
Moving back to Colorado for a rotating internship, she initially sought to apply for an obstetrics-gynecology residency at the University of Colorado, Denver; however, the chair of the department told her they had never had a woman resident and were not ready for one. She then spoke to William R. Waddell, MD, FACS, chair of surgery, who also said he had never had a woman resident but was willing to try it. “I have been forever grateful for the opportunity Dr. Waddell gave me.” Thanks to this opportunity, Dr. Stewart finished a residency in general surgery and a fellowship in transplantation surgery, assisting in some of the first liver transplant operations, under the tutelage of the pioneering transplant surgeon Thomas Starlz, MD, PhD, FACS.
After her residency and two years as director of the emergency department at Washington Adventist Hospital, Takoma Park, MD, Dr. Stewart moved to Colorado Springs to start a surgical practice. As the only woman physician in the city for her first five years in Colorado Springs, winning over the referring family physicians was no easy task—although once they saw how well trained Dr. Stewart was, they eventually accepted her. Dr. Stewart’s notable career also highlights her dedication to the profession and patients. She served in academia at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where she was instructor in surgery and assistant clinical professor of surgery (1972–1990). In addition, Dr. Stewart was a member of the surgical staff at both Penrose-St. Francis Health Services and Memorial Health Systems (1972–2008) in Colorado Springs. At Penrose, Dr. Stewart also held the position of chief, department of surgery (1995). At present, she serves on the admissions committee at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Colorado Springs.
Dr. Stewart has been involved in many surgical associations, and her leadership roles have included ACS Second Vice-President; Chair, Executive Committee of the ACS Board of Governors; and President, Western Surgical Association.
Although officially retired, Dr. Stewart still provides patient care at Peak Vista’s Volunteer Specialty Center, helping to fill a gap in care for those patients who do not have access to surgeons. According to a Peak Vista volunteerism award nomination, “Dr. Stewart improves the lives of her patients by always caring for them with compassion, integrity, and honesty. She is a loyal, respected member of Peak Vista and serves as a role model for others.”†
A Fellow since 1974, Dr. Stewart stated that Fellowship in the ACS and the surgical profession have been so personally rewarding to her that she chose to reciprocate through her involvement in ACS philanthropic programs. She was a member of the ACS Development Committee (now the ACS Foundation) and is the current Chair of the ACS Foundation Board of Directors.
Dr. Stewart’s commitment to volunteerism has led to a number of awards, including the 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award from Sidney Kimmell Medical College; the 2014 Colorado Community Health Network Volunteer Clinician Award; and the ACS Distinguished Service Award (DSA), the College’s highest honor. She received the DSA for her “dedicated service to the ACS and to the profession of surgery as a gifted and dedicated community surgeon and an active volunteer and leader.”‡
Dr. Stewart continues to give back, not just with her time but with her philanthropic support as well. She makes annual donations and is leaving a philanthropic legacy by including the ACS in her will. “I was a recipient of a tuition scholarship in medical school, which has made me a strong champion for philanthropy. My definition of a good donor is one who gives an annual gift and also commits to a planned gift through his or her estate. It is personally heartwarming for me to see the wonderful results in the next generation of surgeons who are now the recipients of this circle of giving.”
If you are interested in learning how you can join Dr. Stewart in planning for a future gift to the ACS, contact Shane Hollett, Executive Director, ACS Foundation, at 312-202-5506.
*Thomas Jefferson University. Women in medicine and science. Available at: www.jefferson.edu/university/skmc/about/women-in-medicine-science.html. Accessed June 1, 2016.
†Colorado Community Health Quarterly Newsletter October 2014. Colorado Community Health Quarterly Newsletter. October 2014. Available at: cchn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/October-2014-Newsletter-FINAL.pdf. Accessed June 1, 2016.
‡American College of Surgeons. Amilu Stewart, MD, FACS, honored with 2010 Distinguished Service Award. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2010;95(10):39-40. Available at: facs.org/~/media/files/publications/bulletin/2010/2010%20october%20bulletin.ashx. Accessed June 1, 2016.