Mary Rose Stewart FRACP died on May 16th, aged 73 -- exhausted, after a long period of respiratory illness, which had prevented her working about 4 years earlier.
As a general physician, Mary was renowned for her diagnostic and management skill, her straight talking, and an underlying streak of mischief. A friend describes her as “a naughty girl” in school: she finished her work quickly, then enjoyed distracting others. She sped through the years at Genazzano College, then commenced medical studies in 1963, aged 16. After a couple of years working at Royal Melbourne, she moved to Austin Hospital -- in 1972 or 73.
Medical interns in 1973 found her very supportive, but demanding of high standards. Long ward rounds might be relieved when she subtly handed out chocolates hidden in the deep pockets of her white coat. Mary taught enthusiastically, mentoring younger colleagues before the word was widely used. Many commented on her sense of style. Young doctors described her as inspiring.
One consultant put it thus: ‘When I bring coffee to the Friday ward round for my team, I think of the woman who taught me that taking time for shared refreshment enhances patient care and team morale. When we identify questions on each round and agree to bring back the current evidence, I can see Mary Rose admitting freely that learning never stops and being happy to be taught by younger staff. I have never needed to question the value of understanding something of each patient’s life since watching Mary Rose provide care that considered more than lab results and examination findings.’
Mary was married a couple of years after graduation. Her physician’s career was initially part time, fitting in with the needs of a young family. Before starting a practice, she worked for the National Heart Foundation blood pressure study in the late 1970s. Private practice came a year or two later, alongside hospital consultant work at Austin. She was a firm believer in the role of General Physicians – a cause she championed by the quality of her work
Somehow, she managed her professional life, running a household – where her cooking was described as ‘sophisticated.’ Her maternity leave was not supported at times by other colleagues. With the family complete, four very energetic daughters were her major focus, yet she continued to read widely, as well as medically, and could happily discuss many subjects (including the Essendon Football Club). Mary was alleged to have held strong views about the use of performance enhancing supplements. Gardening was a continuing passion. Though she was not especially fond of cats, when a stray kitten was found, MR fed it patiently from an eye dropper in the kitchen.
Many were delighted by this bright, clever woman, whose comments were often not politically correct. Expletives dotted her conversations, followed sometimes by an apology. Mary made long connections with people: a nanny for 25 years, her secretary for 43, a cleaner for 15, a school friend for over 60 years. She formed close bonds with nurses (especially at Warringal Hospital), doctors, and ancillary hospital staff. When I asked her opinion of one proposed surgical referral, she replied: “He’s good. He operates well, and he thinks.”
Over and over, one heard how her patients adored her. So did her family. She was very generous with her time at work, and with friends and family. Even in the past few years, she was more interested in others than herself, eager to comment on their medical experiences, listen to their news. As her treasured ability to read disappeared, and she was largely confined to home, family and visitors opened windows into the world Mary could visit only in her thoughts. She hated being sedated by analgaesics: “ This b… narcotic is doing my head in!”
Many people will miss this extraordinary woman – family, friends, colleagues, patients. All have their little stories; all are richer for the times we spent with Mary-Rose Stewart.