Although she had once considered becoming a physician, Beth Stewart opted for a career as an occupational therapist. She felt that OT was a more flexible profession that would allow her to help others without sacrificing time with her family.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from UNH, Stewart began her career in Connecticut. Her compassionate nature became apparent as she helped one of her first patients recover from serious burn injuries. Throughout the patient’s many surgeries “Beth worked with him to overcome his physical limitations,” says her husband, Steve Stewart ‘88. With her help, her patient relearned how to care for himself and was able to return to work. When he learned to drive again, Stewart helped him find a car adapted to his needs. Her patient went on to marry and have a child. “He kept in touch with her for years, keeping her updated with each new success,” says Steve. It was the first of many times she would make a genuine connection with a patient and form an immediate bond built on mutual respect and trust.
Stewart returned to New Hampshire in 1994 to earn a master’s degree in health management from New England College, and, after some 20 years as a practicing clinician, in 2006 she accepted a position as a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at UNH, returning to her alma mater to teach. She quickly became popular with her colleagues and students. And because she continued to work during school breaks as an occupational therapist at Parkland Medical Center in Derry, NH, “she provided a real-world perspective” says her son, Sean Stewart ’13, program coordinator at the Peter T. Paul College of Business & Economics. Her students appreciated her practical, up-to-date advice, often referring to “the world according to Beth,” says Sean.
“We are treating human beings and we are treating their families. The key to almost everything is communication.”
Stewart always put others first. Her son remembers colleagues telling him how hard his mother worked and how much she was appreciated. She put 100 percent effort into everything she did, says Sean. “In a time when people are so concerned about themselves, what was refreshing about my mother was that she was completely selfless both in her personal and professional lives.”
Giving back to the occupational therapy profession and helping to train the next generation of OTs was important to her. With her UNH colleague Kerryellen Vroman, Stewart co-authored a well-received book, Occupational Therapy Evaluation for Adults: A Pocket Guide, which was published in 2013. In a video created when she received a university Faculty Excellence teaching award the same year, Stewart focused not on her own impressive achievements but on her students and how the OT program prepared them for the compassionate and ethical behavior necessary for their profession. She emphasized that “We are treating human beings and we are treating their families,” adding, “The key to almost everything is communication.”
Following her death from lymphoma on April 26, 2016, Stewart’s family received tributes from several of her current and former students. One student fondly recalled her graduating class naming Stewart “The Mother of OT.” Many mentioned how motivating she continued to be as a mentor, even long after they had begun their own professional careers. Recalling a telephone conversation with her, one former student wrote, “I hung up the phone nostalgic for OT school and re-inspired to be the best OT I could be.”
A more recent student wrote, “I, like many before me, strive to be like her and strive to uphold her standard of occupational therapy service delivery….I will always ask myself while practicing, ‘What would Beth do?’”
With Steve, her husband of 26 years, Stewart raised three children to whom she was unwaveringly devoted: Sean, Alexander ’15 and Mary. She loved cooking for her family and, despite her very full work and teaching schedules, she never missed her children’s sports events, musical performances and other school activities.
Fittingly, a scholarship in Stewart’s name that will provide financial assistance to OT students has been established at UNH. Donations may be made online by going to unh.edu/give and searching for “Elizabeth A. Stewart Memorial Fund.”
Originally published in UNH Magazine Winter 2017 Issue