Dr. Emily Stewart discusses the importance of encouragement and skepticism when pursuing a career in medicine

Emily Stewart, MD, FACP
Dr. Emily Stewart on vacation with her family in Alaska.


Emily Stewart, MD, FACP
Associate Professor of Medicine in the Clinical Educator Scholarship Track, Director for the Internal Medicine Residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, PA

Thomas Jefferson University

Thomas Jefferson University

Growing up in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Emily Stewart heard the call to become a physician as a child. She would later learn from her mother that she first talked about being a doctor when she was four or five, but Dr. Stewart can't remember the singular moment that defined her drive. “It's been ingrained as a part of me so much that it's almost like a calling. It's something that I knew I needed to do.” She has known she wanted to be a physician her entire life.

Perseverance through doubt

Dr. Stewart's family knew what it meant to work hard in an underserved community. Her father split his time working at the post office distribution center and helping out on her great uncle's farm. Her mother stayed home with the children until Dr. Stewart's younger brother entered grade school. Then she went back to school, got a degree in education and now works as a science teacher.

I tried to stay realistic.

Her family instilled in Dr. Stewart a common sense attitude about working as she grew up. “They have always been profoundly encouraging. They were always great about saying that we could be whatever we wanted, but they were always appropriately skeptical. They told me that it would be a lot of work, and that if I wanted to do it that I'd have to own the amount of work that's required.”

While her parents were appropriately skeptical of Dr. Stewart's calling, some people in her community tended to cast doubt on her potential future. Dr. Stewart recalls having “teachers at points in grade school saying, ‘you can't be a doctor. It's too much money. It's too much time. That's not something that can happen for you.’” Rather than dissuade her from her calling, hearing doubt from teachers only spurred Dr. Stewart on further.

She continued to strive towards a career in medicine, but she kept her parents' healthy skepticism in mind. Growing up in an underserved community, Dr. Stewart knew firsthand that having a secure job was crucial to her livelihood. That desire for security pushed her to be practical about her education. “I tried to stay realistic,” Dr. Stewart admits.

Dr. Stewart would work towards becoming a physician, but her time as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania was spent building a fallback career in research. “I came from a background where I knew that if I left undergrad and didn't go to medical school, I needed to find a way to be gainfully employed. I actually worked in a lab for most of my time in undergrad so that I could always work in research if I didn't get into medical school.”

Becoming an internist through a change of heart

Once Dr. Stewart entered medical school at Thomas Jefferson University, she had her heart set on becoming an emergency medicine physician. “I was motivated by working with the acutely ill patient. I felt like I wanted to have a quick impact.”

I absolutely fell in love with critical care.

That all changed during Dr. Stewart's internal medicine rotation in her third year. “I absolutely fell in love with critical care. I was on a pulmonary service that had a lot of critically ill patients. I loved that acuity, but I also liked the follow through that I got with those patients.” She found that following through with patients satisfied the calling she felt growing up. “I didn't get that with my emergency medicine rotation, not in the same way. With my internal medicine rotation, I got to see the acute illness through to completion.”

That mental transition from a career path in emergency medicine to internal medicine still stands as one of the more defining moments in Dr. Stewart's career. “I am a person who, from the age of five on, has had a relatively clear path to becoming who I want to be. I entered medical school with emergency medicine being the goal of that career path. I spoke to mentors in the emergency medicine realm who would say, ‘wait and see, it's early, you might change your mind,’ and I always said, ‘no, I'm not a person who changes my mind, that doesn't happen.’”

Being able to “accept that kind of course change” was a genuine challenge for Dr. Stewart. The decision weighed heavily on her. “In the process of making that decision, there was plenty of doubt. But, once I committed to internal medicine, I've never looked back.”

Finding a home for advocacy and education in ACP

Once I committed to internal medicine, I've never looked back.

Dr. Stewart joined ACP thanks to her program director, Dr. Gregory Kane, Immediate-Past-Governor for ACP's Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter. Dr. Kane, according to Dr. Stewart, “always ensured that all of his residents were members of ACP.” That standard meant that Dr. Stewart joined ACP as a resident, and she's stayed a member ever since.

Today, Dr. Stewart leans on ACP to help her residents. As the Director for Internal Medicine Residency at Jefferson University Hospital, she spends weeks at a time working in the hospital, and the rest of her time running the residency program. She mentors residents and finds particular joy in “thinking about the way that we deliver medical education in the United States, and what we need to do to continue to improve that process.”

That's where ACP comes in. ACP offers Dr. Stewart the opportunity to deliver the best education for her residents while making sure that she maintains a relationship with “a body of like-minded people who are looking to advocate for the best medical care.”

Making time for family

While Dr. Stewart works to answer her calling to medicine, she is always sure to make time for her family. The mother of two children ages nine and six, Dr. Stewart actually had her first child during her residency. She managed to carve out time to become a mother during one of the busiest times in her life; so, today she dedicates “a lot of time to being with my husband and children.”

That means the Stewarts are together as much as possible, enjoying bike rides and playing sports. It also means that, should either of her children hear the same calling she did growing up, Dr. Stewart will be there to instill the same sense of profound encouragement and appropriate skepticism she received as a child.

Back to the August 2018 issue of ACP IMpact

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