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An anatomist’s recovery: surgery hits close to home for head of first-year course

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Autumn


First-year medical students had to make do without one of their most beloved professors last spring, when William B. Stewart, Ph.D., associate professor and chief of the Section of Anatomy and Experimental Surgery, underwent spinal surgery in February.

A sore neck prompted Stewart to seek medical attention for what turned out to be a tumor on his spinal cord that required immediate surgery, two weeks at Yale-New Haven Hospital and five weeks of rehabilitation at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn. His recovery continued through the spring as he spent time and energy at home doing rehabilitation exercises, learning to walk without a crutch and regaining the ability to tie his famous bow ties, which he has rarely been seen without for the past three decades. He expects to be back in the anatomy lab for the current academic year.

As an anatomist, Stewart is intimately familiar with the inner workings of the human body and aware of any mishaps that might have occurred during the delicate operation. “In some respects it’s frightening because you know so much—what might happen, and all of the possible negative consequences,” he said. “On the plus side, I think I understand a lot about how my body works so that my interactions with my therapists have been a little richer, because we can discuss what muscles are involved and make a more efficient plan for rehab.”

Although Stewart was absent from the anatomy lab for almost the entire second semester last spring, he began preparing for the start of the current school year early by practicing his lectures and drawing on a whiteboard at home. His lectures have traditionally included neurobiology, but he said that now there will be a little more relevance, given his experience as a patient. His colleague and course director Lawrence J. Rizzolo, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery (anatomy), filled in while Stewart was recuperating. Rizzolo noted that Stewart also plays a large role in organizing and running the section. “I didn’t realize all that Bill does until I was asked to do something,” he said.

Every medical student for the past 30 years has studied under Stewart, who instructs physician associate and nursing students as well as future physicians. And in addition to teaching Yale students, Stewart oversees a collaboration between the medical school and Hill Regional Career High School. Students from the high school come to Yale for anatomy classes led by first and second-year medical students. “He has a very calming presence that makes you enjoy the process of learning about the human body,” said first-year student Lionel McIntosh, one of the instructors for the Career High program. “He knows how to make us better teachers. That go-to person if you had a difficult concept to explain was definitely missing.” Besides teaching anatomy, Stewart studies the effects of low levels of oxygen on postnatal development of the brain.

But it is obvious to the students who clamor for his attention in the anatomy lab and to anyone who has ever observed his enthusiasm in the classroom that Stewart’s first love is teaching.
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