In her extraordinary career, Stewart (seen here at her medical school graduation with close friend Barbie Norman, M.D.) has provided care to underrepresented populations in Ohio and South Carolina, first as a pharmacist and then as a family physician. Among other accomplishments, she has served as president and board chair of the South Carolina chapter of the AAFP and was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she joined the military; she eventually reached the rank of colonel and continues to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves.
In celebration of Black History Month, Stewart spoke with AAFP News to reflect on her career and experiences, both as a Black woman and as a Black family physician. This interview has been edited for brevity.
AAFP News: Tell us about your background. Where were you born, and what was your family life like?
Ada Stewart, M.D.: I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a housing project in an urban area. I had an older sister, and a younger sister and brother. Sadly, I now only have my younger sister. Both of my parents are deceased. My mom died from breast cancer; she was diagnosed in August 1986 with a mass, and she died in March 1987, and that was really traumatic for me. We did not have a primary care doctor. If we got sick we went to the emergency room. That was all we knew. Prevention was not part of my past, so I’m passionate about preventive medicine. My father died in 1979 of heart disease, which was complicated by alcohol use, and sadly that was passed on to my sister and brother who both passed away at young ages.
AAFP News: What influenced you to pursue a career in health care?
AS: In high school, I had a love for science and wanted to do something as far as health care. My science teacher — who’s actually still alive — had a big influence. We had a career day at school, and she brought in an African American pharmacist to our science class. I recognized that I could be a pharmacist, and so that became my first career.
About a year ago, my science teacher and her husband were passing through on their way to Florida. Somehow, she’d found out about my accomplishments, so she had the opportunity to come see me and stop by our residency program and get to hear some of the things I’d done. She didn’t even realize the impact that she’d had on my life at the time.
I practiced as a pharmacist in Cleveland for many years, and then I came across an article that talked about a Black family physician in the community. She talked about the impact that she had in the community as a physician, being able to touch lives and treat the whole person — the spiritual, physical and mental well-being of people in the community. That is when I thought my true calling was as a family physician, and that began my quest.
I was one of those nontraditional medical students, having a career already and then going back, but I started out knowing that I wanted to be a family physician. And as I look back, when people ask if I knew I wanted to become a physician, I constantly hear something that Dr. Jocelyn Elders once said: “You can’t be what you don’t see.” It’s true. I never saw a physician or a family physician, and not until later on, when I was exposed to family medicine, did I even think about becoming a family physician. It’s important for us to be mentors and be out there in the communities and let young folks see what they can be, especially those of color who don’t really have mentors in their lives so they can realize their true potential.
AAFP News: Who were some of the mentors and people who guided you? What advice did they give you?
AS: I had two teachers who were an important influence in my life early on. One was Ms. Baker, my junior high school homeroom teacher. She would pick me up from the housing projects and drive me around to different suburbs of Cleveland to show me a different way of living and what I could achieve. She told me that I could go to college and achieve greatness if I worked hard. I thank God for her every day.
And then my high school science teacher, Ms. Nackley, who brought the pharmacist to our class and really started my journey of trying to accomplish something in life. Those individuals are really important to me.
There were other people in different chapters of my life as well. In pharmacy school — and I’ll tell you, it was not easy, I had some rough times — I was blessed to have a dean at the school, Dean Beltz, who saw that I had a drive and a dream. There was a time toward the end of my college career where due to finances there was a threat that I would not be able to graduate, and he co-signed a loan for me allowing me to see my dream. I’m forever grateful for him.
After entering medical school, I had several individuals who were influential in my journey, especially in my leadership journey. There’s Dr. Warren Jones. I’ll never forget. I first met him at an AMA meeting, and he came up to me and said, “You know what? You’re going to be a mover and a shaker.” And I thought, “Oh. Really? Yeah, I’ll take that. That’s me.” It’s people like that who lift you, and that’s what I try to do with young folks — try to encourage them and tell them that they can strive for greatness.
Or folks like Dr. Regina Benjamin, a fellow family physician, a national leader and fellow National Health Service Corps Scholar who was very influential in my journey. There are many others, both black and non-Black individuals who I recognize as mentors and influencers. In addition, I think my desire to serve our country after 9/11 came from people like Warren Jones and Dr. Evelyn Lewis & Clark. These are folks that one looks to as strong leaders. Again, you can’t be what you don’t see. If you see people who look like you, you realize that you can also be like them. We also have mentors who don’t always look like us, but it’s vitally important that we have those who do look like us, because at that point you can truly believe you can be that person and be like that person. And so it’s imperative that we celebrate Black History Month and the accomplishments of African Americans to help grow our diverse workforce.
I am so proud that we now have the first multiracial vice president. How many kids now can look and say, “I can be the vice president”? Or President Barack Obama — how many kids now say, “I can be the president”? A lot of times we don’t think about the influence we can have on younger people, but it’s really impactful.