Atlanta VA Health Care System
Veteran, RN commits to life of caring
Can you imagine the fear a 23-year-old female must have felt entering the VA hospital for help the first time as a patient? Back then, the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s largest population was -- and remains to be - male veterans, and the care was also focused as such. At least that’s what she believed.
"When I walked into that 12-story-tall hospital, I was truly afraid, and I felt so alone in this unknown world of care," admitted Ruby Stewart, Veteran. "But I found out quickly the staff members were here to support, help and walk with me every step of the way."
Stewart will never forget that morning in 1978 when she arrived for surgery. It signified the beginning of a new chapter in her life … receiving care as a Veteran! One of the friendly faces that greeted her was of a member from her military unit. With a sincere smile he reassured her that she ‘was going to be just fine,’ Stewart recalled. "The fear left me and was replaced with a sense of peace because I knew I was not alone. I was safe," she said.
Stewart doesn’t remember much regarding the rest of that day, but when she awoke after surgery the next morning the fresh scar on her neck resembled a not-so-smiley face; it extended from one side to the other. "When I saw it for the first time I was horrified, and I did not want to face the unknown future. Death seemed easier," she revealed. Stewart had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and phase two of her care would include several radiation therapy treatments. However, on her second night of care in the Endocrinology-Clinic, a VA nurse helped Stewart find the strength to "get up and fight for my right to live."
"My VA Guardians explained everything that I was about to face, and encouraged me by stepping on to the road of care and walking with me," she said. "Some people I met along my forced journey were cruel, and the remarks they made only served to make me stronger."
Stewart thought her short military career was over, since back then any form of cancer was an automatic "No Go" for reenlistment. Stewart joined the U.S. Women Army Corps as a Private-2nd Class in July 1974. With a small bag in tow, she waved goodbye to her mother from the back seat of an Army sedan en route to Atlanta, where she would board an airplane for her first flight; it was headed to Fort Jackson, S.C. At basic training Stewart stepped into a whole new world, new life and an exciting adventure!
A native of Milledgeville, a small Georgia town, her life thus far had been one of extreme hardship and heartaches. She knew nothing of the world and all its wonders except what school books shared. During her high school senior year an Army recruiter bragged of all the wonderful opportunities the military could offer those who wanted a better life. Stewart’s parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, and jobs were next to none. Knowing her parents would never agree to let her join, Stewart secretly took the entrance exam, passed it, and later updated the family with the great news.
Stewart completed her three years active duty obligation in Germany, and returned home to serve two more years in the Army Reserves.
With training as a medic, the VA allowed Stewart and others in her Reserve unit, located in Chamblee, Ga., to work at the Atlanta VA as a nursing assistant during the weekend drills. They provided care for patients on the 11th floor. When her health began to deteriorate, Stewart took leave. It was during this ordeal Stewart learned of the cancerous invasion to her vibrant and youthful existence.
After surgery and during treatments, Stewart started working on a Nursing degree.
"I held onto the kindness and encouragement that my VA Guardians gave me. I wanted to be that kind of person, so I decided to become a beacon of hope for others," she recalls. "Treatments and classes were my life for several years. One small step at a time … I pressed on."
Stewart graduated from nursing school in 1987, and in 1988 was commissioned into the Air Force Nurse Corp. After serving 23 years, she retired in 2010. While her feet where yet in combat boots, Stewart’s heart for service also beat for the Veterans in Georgia.
"In 2001, the VA needed nurses," recalls the registered nurse. "Remembering what I received during my time of need, I stepped forward and also answered that call on Feb. 25, 2001. I continue to walk, support and help my fellow Veterans because I understand what’s it’s like to be a true medical miracle of the Atlanta VA Medical Center."
To her coworkers, Stewart is truly that beacon of hope. "I met Ms. Stewart 10 years ago when she came to Atlanta VAMC as a new employee in the operating room," said Fannie J. Crowder, a nurse in the surgical department. They became good friends as well as co-workers. Alisa Thompkins, another coworker added, "Ms. Stewart can really lift your spirit when you’re feeling down. She’s always making the patients laugh, and she’d made me hurt my side a few times laughing at her," Thompkins relayed. "She is very compassionate and caring about our Veterans. She jumps in to help whenever she is needed, even if it’s not her assignment. I love working with Ruby. A day without Ruby is just not a good day."
Stewart explained that she sat in a meeting a few years ago and listened to a group of her peers conveying to someone how ‘special’ the care our Veterans receive here is. She said the group spoke eloquently and with so much pride about what they did, how family members were taken care of when the Veteran receives care here, and how it was/is such a great honor to serve those who have served this country.
"As I sat there listening, I looked around to see their expressions and wondered, do they really realize the huge impact they have made upon so many lives along the way?" Stewart said. "I did! You see, my life as it is today exists because of the HUGE acts of caring bestowed upon me by the dedication and hard work of ALL of my coworkers," Stewart concluded.
"Ruby represents what we all strive to be: dedicated, focused and hardworking," Dr. Ken Protas, Operating Room Director, stated. As a Veteran, she is fiercely protective of our Veteran patients. Whenever there is an issue involving a patient I know whose side Ruby will be on."