A fond farewell to MUSC Hollings oncologist, cancer pioneer Robert Stuart

June 29, 2021
Dr. Robert Stuart receives Order of the Palmetto plaque from former Mount Pleasant mayor Billy Swails
Dr. Robert Stuart received the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto from former Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails at a ceremony celebrating Stuart's retirement on June 25. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

In a crowning achievement that honored an illustrious 33-year career spent advancing cancer care at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, Robert Stuart, M.D., received the state’s Order of the Palmetto on June 25 at a ceremony celebrating his countless contributions.

Former Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails presented the award, which is the highest civilian honor in South Carolina and recognizes a lifetime of extraordinary achievement. Joking lightheartedly with his friend, Swails said it was a fitting tribute. “Rob, looking at your bio, you really do deserve this award,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know why it took you so long to get it.”

Swails’ father was one of many patients treated by Stuart over his 33-year career at MUSC.

“In 1995, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer for a second time. Rob took my dad in his hands to care for him,” Swails said. “Rob gave us another 10 years with my dad, and I appreciate that very much.”

A cancer pioneer, Stuart played an instrumental role in founding Hollings Cancer Center, getting the cancer center NCI-designated; forming a top 10% in the nation bone and marrow transplant (BMT) program, based on survival, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research; and pushing the envelope of what was possible in cancer care.

Craig Lockhart, M.D., chief of the MUSC Division of Hematology and Oncology, also announced the creation of the Robert K. Stuart Award for Clinical Excellence that will be given to one senior oncology fellow each year.

“This award will be given to the person who best represents the values Dr. Stuart has shown over the years. The qualifications include an unwavering pursuit of excellent patient care, commitment to lifelong learning and the ability to inspire others.”

Dr. Robert Stuart shakes hands with Dr. Raymond DuBois 
Stuart shakes hands with Dr. Raymond N. DuBois, who described the new blood and marrow transplant outpatient clinic that will be named in Stuart's honor. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of Hollings Cancer Center, thanked Stuart for his influential impact on Hollings, announcing the planting of a Japanese maple tree in the Pearlstine Healing Garden at Hollings, donated by the BMT program in Stuart’s honor.

“Rarely has an academic clinician-scientist spent an entire career dedicated to delivering lifesaving care, discovering the best and most effective care for his patients, reaching across borders to establish the most up-to-date care delivery in his field in other countries, training the next generation of care providers and establishing state-of-the-art stem cell transplant therapy for the entire population of South Carolina,” DuBois said. “Dr. Robert Stuart has done all of these things and more.”

DuBois also described the new Robert K. Stuart blood and marrow transplant outpatient clinic that is being developed. The clinic will provide more space and grow transplant services by 60%.

“We can think of no one more fitting to name this new outpatient BMT program after than Dr. Stuart. It will provide resources to continue to grow our program and reach more patients,” DuBois said.

Benjamin Clyburn, M.D., professor and chairman of the MUSC Department of Medicine, also spoke at the ceremony, highlighting the impact Stuart has had on clinical trials, research, patient care and fellow doctors.

“It is absolutely impossible to overestimate the impact Dr. Stuart has had in cancer care,” Clyburn said. “Think about how one person can make such a big difference. I don’t think anyone can match what he has done.”

The ceremony was supposed to be all about Stuart. But in typical Stuart fashion, he was quick to give credit to everyone else, shining a spotlight on what MUSC had given to him instead of what he had given to MUSC.

Dr. Robert Stuart stands with six doctors in the blood and marrow transplant program who will carry on his legacy 
Stuart is passing the BMT program torch to a new generation of doctors (L to R): Dr. Amarendra Neppalli, Dr. Brian Greenwell, Dr. Brian Hess, Dr. Kimberly Green, Dr. Praneeth Baratam and Dr. Hamza Hashmi. Photo by Marquel Coaxum 

“During the interview process, I sensed that the existing cancer specialists, such as Paul O’Brien Sr. in surgery, and Keene Wallace in radiation oncology, really wanted me to succeed,” Stuart said. “The same was true for leaders in pathology and laboratory medicine, radiology, medicine subspecialties and other disciplines. This moral support was critically important.”

In a heartfelt speech, Stuart thanked the nurses, doctors and staff who worked beside him tirelessly over the years. Of all the things he said that MUSC had given to him, his wife of 30 years, Charlene, was top of the list. In an odd twist of fate, in April 2000, Charlene was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, which is the deadliest form of the cancer. It was also a disease Stuart knew well — he studied it throughout his career and helped to start the BMT program, the same program that Charlene supported as an administrator and one that would ultimately save her life.

“A kind physician said, ‘I hear your wife has AML.’ I thought, ‘No, AML has my wife.’ I had to get her back,” Stuart said. “I’m going to ask Charlene to step forward now so you can see what a 20-year survivor of AML looks like.”

Stuart thanked everyone and said that the sky is the limit for what is possible in cancer care at Hollings. “It is hard to quit after 33 years, but I have a really good feeling about the team here moving forward. I just thank you for everything.”