MUSCATINE, Iowa — At home in hospitals from Haiti to eastern Iowa and western Illinois, Larry Stewart is one of Iowa’s 100 great nurses.
Earlier this month, the Muscatine man was awarded a plaque to prove it. The group 100 Great Iowa Nurses selected Stewart and 99 others from around the state for their contributions to the profession. Stewart was the only Muscatine nurse selected.
For almost 23 years, Stewart, 58, has been a certified registered nurse anesthetist and an independent practitioner at Trinity Muscatine and at hospitals in De Witt and Aledo, Ill.
He’s also the managing partner for a team of four CRNAs serving surgical teams in the three communities.
He figures in a career that’s lasted more than 30 years that he’s participated in more than 30,000 operations and procedures, from C-sections to cataracts.
“It’s more art than science,” he said. “I learn something new every time.”
But a little ironically, it’s Stewart’s work abroad that helped earn him the title as one of Iowa’s 100 best nurses. He received his award during a ceremony May 2 in Des Moines.
Weeks after the deadly earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 — in fact, the day that the airport in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, was reopened — Stewart relieved an anesthetist with the agency Mercy Ships who’d worked every day for four straight weeks.
“They called Tuesday, we left on Friday, and got there Saturday,” Stewart recalled.
Stewart volunteered for two weeks of very long days at two separate surgical sites.
While he enjoyed the work, Stewart said things got a little dangerous toward the end of his two-week stint. Hungry people sometimes commit lawless acts, he said.
Now that order has been restored in Haiti, Stewart, who’s married with three children, said he’d volunteer again.
“If I could have my own surgical team, I’d go down there again,” he said. “After I got back, it’s all I talked about for a month.”
Mercy Ships’ surgical teams performed operations in operating rooms at Haitian hospitals. When the operation was over, the team sent patients out on stretchers to a makeshift recovery room in the hospital parking lot, Stewart said.
It wasn’t such a bad system — family members were waiting for them there and nursed the patients back to health, he said.
In a letter nominating Stewart for his award, Cindy Dawson, wife of Dr. Doug Dawson of Muscatine, noted that when it began to rain hard during the team’s second week in Haiti, Stewart — who came prepared with an air mattress and poncho — gave both away to a fellow nurse who wasn’t as well prepared.
Friday is Stewart’s favorite day at work, because that’s the day he gets to help children through an operation they may be dreading.
He’s well known, said Trinity Muscatine public relations coordinator Holly Thomas, for dressing up Fridays in red wooden clogs and wild surgical scrubs to help children ease their way into the operation.
“Larry is especially gifted in pediatric anesthesia,” Dawson wrote in her nomination letter, adding that his “comprehensive provision of care” for children includes dressing as the Easter bunny and Santa every year.
Stewart said the biggest reward of his work is to “watch people get better, something that happens a lot.”
The worst part?
“It’s getting up in the middle of the night,” he said. Those calls often are for trauma patients.
He said he also enjoys offering advice to beginning nurses.
“I tell them we’re all average anesthetists,” he said. “The way we get to be a good one is to be a nice guy.”
Stewart said he plans to work up to five more years and then retire, perhaps spending significant time overseas.
It won’t be sitting on the beach somewhere. Stewart plans to volunteer, perhaps permanently, with Mercy Ships, wherever the need takes him.