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PROFile: India Stewart

Disease no deterrent for TMC professor

by Emily Grooms

CLEVELAND, Ga. (TMCNews)--What 12-year-old kid doesn't yearn to break the teen barrier by reaching a 13th birthday? Adding the word "teen" to the end of one's age promises a world of wonder and privilege. But not disease.

Turning 13 in 1955 meant you were medicinally defenseless against a disease that ravaged the world: polio. Because Jonas Salk's vaccine was in high demand and short supply, only children 12 and under were immunized.

A month after her 12-year-old sister got the medicine, India Stewart contracted polio, a highly infectious, viral disease that attacks the central nervous system and can lead to paralysis and death.

India was 13 and quarantined in a hospital. Isolated in a glass cubicle, India could see her family outside, praying. And when doctors upgraded her condition from critical to stable, her family knew God had granted the miracle they wanted.

From tragedy to triumphIndiacrop1 400"I love college students; you can see the light in these young folks," says TMC Professor India Stewart.                                Photo / Lillian Cottingham

An adjunct professor of English at Truett-McConnell College, India Stewart recalled the devastation of the disease and that she relied on her friends, family and heavenly Father.

"I was born into a loving Christian family," Stewart said. "I always thank God every day that I was born to a mother and daddy who took me to church."

That pattern still holds today as Stewart teaches Sunday school at Carnes Creek Baptist Church in Toccoa, Ga.

In the same year polio struck Stewart, she committed her life to Christ at a church revival. "Without even my knowing it, God was equipping me for a lot of different things," she said.

Overcoming the odds was something Stewart became accustomed to doing. "When a doctor tells you that you can't do something, it just makes you want to do it," she chuckled.

After numerous surgeries and a three-year recovery, Stewart recounted the miracles God worked in her life. One was her selection as the poster child for the March of Dimes, a non-profit organization founded in 1938 that helped polio victims. This distinction underwrote all of Stewart's surgeries.

With each surgery, doctors assured Stewart she would not walk again; and when she did, they were dumbfounded.

"The [doctors] told my parents I would never walk again, but that didn't bother me," said Stewart. "Don't tell me that I can't do something, because I did walk again against all odds."

When the doctors asked her how, Stewart told them, "With God's help and my dad's."

Stewart's father pushed her to the limits during rehab, doubling the amount of prescribed exercises. He would say, "If it's good for you 10 times, it's good for you 20," Stewart recounted.

From patient to pupil to professor

The doctors also told Stewart she'd never return to public school.

"I thought it was special when I went back to high school and was in a wheel chair," Stewart said. "All the football boys would come running and would want to carry my chair up the stairs."

After earning her bachelor's and master's degree in English, Stewart wanted to pursue a terminal degree. She opted for family life instead, and, once again defied doctors' predictions.

"With the help of God and my stubbornness, I have four kids and eight grandchildren," she said.

Stewart entered the academic scene at TMC in the late '70s at a (former) satellite campus in Toccoa and has taught English classes ever since. Stewart teaches two days a week on the Cleveland campus and spends the rest of her time "entertaining her grandchildren," she said. Stewart will soon celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary.

"I love Truett-McConnell. It's been a great experience for me," she said. "I've always thought you couldn't work anywhere else where you could feel more like you're making a contribution in the presence of God. There are not many places where you can work like that."

"I love college students; you can see the light in these young folks," continued Stewart, who pours into her students the same love and support which poured into her life as a student as she overcame the odds. "It's special for me that I can bring in my Christian values and I can hear their Christian values and we can talk about those things rather than keep it all so cold and indifferent."

Stewart bragged about her students and said she enjoys greeting them each morning. "I like seeing them smile. They're full of energy and I really enjoy it." She also enjoys the warmth she feels in the classroom as well as the openness she and her students share with one another.

"I met one student who tells me he's not a Christian, but I've been able to talk and share with him," she said.

No regrets

If she had to do it all over again, Stewart says she wouldn't change a thing: "I would just take what God gave me because I had a great experience through all of it."

Christians often ask God what is his purpose for their lives, she said, adding, "I think if you look for it, you can find the good in anything. I don't guess we always have to know the reason," she said.

"I don't feel I've missed anything [in life]," Stewart said. Throughout her many trials, she said God "has always been right there by my side, equipping me to serve Him and others."

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