‘Where Strangers Unexpectedly Become Family’ — When Onieta Stewart Lost Relatives to Tragedy, She Found Support in PA

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

Onieta Stewart has known loss — in fact, she felt it while she was a student in UK’s Physician Assistant Program.

The 43-year-old non-traditional student was one of many who coped with a changing world during the pandemic. But she felt it harder than most.

Her father and stepfather were killed by the virus.

Unbelievably just one year later, her niece and great nephew were killed in an auto accident.

“My family and I were devastated to experience such tremendous losses,” Stewart said. “I could not have made it through without the outpouring of support via texts, zoom calls, emails and flowers from classmates, friends, faculty and staff. You see, the crazy thing is, PA school became a place where strangers unexpectedly become family, and for this I will forever be grateful.”

Saturday, Stewart and the rest of the Class of 2022 — 57 in all — will have their PA Graduation Celebration at 11 a.m. at the Longship Club at Kroger Field.

For Stewart, who was part of the Morehead class, leaving this family will be especially emotional, as it helped her get through an amazingly difficult time.

“My favorite part of my time here has been the people I have met and the relationships I have made,” said the Winchester, Ky., native. “It has been an honor to learn beside, and spend time with, my classmates in Morehead — game nights, pot lucks, hiking trips, days on the lake, and our class cookout.”

Stewart, who is also married and raising a 13-year-old son, successfully balanced life with academics, as she became vice president of her class and recently earned the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Service.

Ultimately, though, Stewart believes in the power of rural medicine — and helping fill the need for affordable healthcare throughout Kentucky. And she knows rural Kentucky, she says, as she grew up on 48 acres in a two-bedroom trailer, five children on a farm in the middle of the Commonwealth.

“I believe that Physician Assistants are part of the solution to our growing need for healthcare in underserved communities,” she said. “The opportunity for lateral movement throughout the medical field allows Physician Assistants to fill the gaping holes in our healthcare system while providing compassionate care.”

She first became aware of passionate care when she was just 10 years old.

“My interest in medicine came about when my uncle was diagnosed with HIV in 1987,” she said. “I was only 10 when he became very ill and vividly remember visiting him in the hospital. He looked as if he had a terrible case of the flu and I remember how scared everyone was to be around him — this was when HIV was newly discovered. It was that day that I learned what an incurable disease was and knew that I wanted to somehow make a difference in the lives of people like my uncle. He was only 37 and was too young to die.”

Now, she will be able to make a difference every day.

“For the past decade my goal has been to bridge the gap between healthcare, wellness and community,” she said. “It is unthinkable to improve one without enhancing the quality of the other. My approach to wellness looks at the individuals’ needs and meets them by providing both education and the appropriate support. This allows me to nurture progress, as well as help create a lifestyle approach to health and wellness for a well Kentucky.”

And there are few states that need the help more. Kentucky routinely finishes last in statistics like obesity, early-onset diabetes, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy. Consequently, there is a great shortage of healthcare workers — not just in Kentucky, but all across the country. And residents are suffering because of it.

“As a Physician Assistant I will be able to help bring better healthcare access to rural Kentucky communities — similar to the one where I grew up and am raising my family,” she said. “I hope to become a transformative leader and make a difference in my community by providing compassionate healthcare on a grander scale — because I truly believe compassion is part of the cure.”

In a fun twist, Stewart was actually able to graduate a few weeks ago with her brother, who earned his MBA from UK this year after graduating last year with a BS in Engineering.

It was an indescribable feeling, she said. All those countless hours spent studying, the thousands of flashcards made, the pharmacology scavenger hunts, the sleepless nights, the patients seen and skills gained, the lasting friendships made, and, ultimately, the future that lies ahead. It came back to her, all at once.

“I would like to thank the UKPA staffs for your devotion to our success, but most of all my family, friends and classmates for their unwavering support,” she said. “You’ve been study partners, practice patients and my biggest cheerleaders. You’ve given grace when I had to say far too often, “I can’t. I’m studying.” PA school is not just a commitment we take on as individuals but was also a commitment our entire family made. Whether it was delivering coffee, meals or picking our kids up from school, our families have made sacrifices to make this dream possible. 

“Their unfaltering love and encouragement have seen us through the peaks and valleys of PA school in a pandemic,” she continued. “I truly could not have made it without you.”