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Cleveland heart surgeon enlists



Published: Tue, June 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



CLEVELAND (AP) -- Hands that have performed thousands of delicate heart operations soon will learn to handle an M-16 rifle.

Dr. Robert Stewart has enlisted in the Army, leaving behind 23 years of surgery for life as a lieutenant colonel on active duty.

The 56-year-old prominent heart surgeon known for leading many transplants will leave University Hospitals of Cleveland on Sept. 1 for 11 weeks of officer basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

After that, he and his wife, Denise, 51, will go wherever the Army sends them for the next four years. It could be an Army medical center stateside or abroad.

"It's going to sound like flag-waving, but Sept. 11 really bothered me," Dr. Stewart said. The son of a decorated World War II Army machine gunner asked himself what he had done for his country.

"I have benefited tremendously as a citizen, but I've never really given back," he said.

Taking oath

Dr. Stewart, who has never been in the military, took his oath of service last week just around the corner from his sixth-floor offices at Lakeside Hospital, where he co-directs University Hospitals' cardiothoracic surgery division. Previously, he set up heart transplant programs at UH as well as at the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Stewart's enlistment is rare for someone of his age and stature. Information about the number of cardiothoracic surgeons in the U.S. Army was unavailable.

In 2000, Dr. William DeVries, who implanted the first permanent artificial heart in Seattle dentist Barney Clark, joined as a 57-year-old reservist -- not as an active senior officer as Stewart has done.

It was more than a year ago when Dr. Stewart stopped into the office of Ronald Dziedzicki, University Hospitals' senior vice president and chief nursing officer, as well as an Army colonel.

Giving back

When Dr. Stewart told the colonel he wanted to join, "I wanted to pinch myself," said Dziedzicki, who administered the oath to Stewart at Thursday's ceremony.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, "We just wanted to go over there and help," said Stewart's wife, a certified registered nurse assistant who met her future husband in a Cleveland Clinic operating room.

Dr. Stewart missed serving in Vietnam. He was a Wayne State University medical student in his home state of Michigan, which kept him out of the lottery.

Dr. Stewart, who has probably performed 11,000 heart operations and 500 transplants in his career, said it was time for a new challenge. Because preventive heart care has improved and cardiologists now do procedures that only surgeons once did, Dr. Stewart said his job is less necessary in a hospital-rich community like Cleveland.

"It's time to feel needed again, rather than showing up, doing a service that you're not sure somebody else can't do."

Dr. Stewart, 6-foot-2 with the lean look of the runner he is, seems fit. But he acknowledged feeling a bit old while waiting with other recruits for physicals at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Broadview Heights.

"The average age -- excluding me -- was about 181/2," he said.




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