In May, 38-year-old David Christianson will graduate from the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and will move on to a residency along with 60 other medical students.
While Christianson’s graduation will be uneventful and fairly ordinary for such an event, the path he took to walk across the stage has been anything but.
“I’ve done a handful of different things,” Christianson said.
For the Long Island, New York, native, things have always come easy. He skipped a grade in high school and graduated at the age of 17, where he then headed to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts for mechanical engineering. Just a year shy of graduation though, Christianson dropped out of school due to little interest in being an engineer and a “mediocre” academic record.
“I just didn’t apply myself,” he said. “I didn’t really have the discipline or maturity to pursue something wholeheartedly at the time.”
He vowed that if school was ever between him and something he wanted to do he would return to higher education to get a degree. For the then 19-year-old Christianson, antique automobile restoration was where he found the most pleasure. After working in restoration for a few years, he decided to move to California to help with his family’s controlled engineering and instrumentation business.
In the early 2000s he met his wife, Melissa, a native of Chester, South Dakota, and the two were soon married. The couple decided to make their home in South Dakota, where Christianson opened a small machine and cabinetry shop. However, the couple decided after a few years to move back to California so that David could take over his family’s business. There, they had two children, and lived comfortably.
“It was okay. It satisfied our situation financially and my wife was able to stay home. It was a good, easy road going ahead but it wasn’t that fulfilling,” he said.
Then one Wednesday night Christianson was driving to church to practice with the congregational band when he received a call from an old friend that would change his life forever. His friend’s 3-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a pediatric brain tumor which usually kills a child within 10 months of diagnosis.
“Before having kids I’d hear things like that and it was really sad, but this was the first time it hit home for me. I was driving and it was dark and I just started crying in my truck,” he said.
Christianson and his wife were extremely close to his friend and his wife, and the two couples’ children were around the same age.
“It’s devastating thought to think about and it really bothered me for months,” he said. “I talked to my wife about it and I let her know that it was bothering me enough that I thought I should do something about it – that I’d like to.”
The more Christianson researched the brain tumor, the more he thought about going back to college to finish a bachelor’s degree and go on to medical school. After discussing his thoughts with his wife, the two decided that he should go back to school. Soon he was accepted into the University of South Dakota and the couple again moved their little family back to South Dakota.
“It would be fair to say that David isn't your typical medical student.”
—Janet Lindemann, USD dean of medical student education
“We moved back from California to here, my wife took a job. I was just going to go to school full time so we just switched everything up and truly, as we were unloading things into my in-laws' garage, we discovered my wife was pregnant. That was a surprise,” he said.
After spending two years to get his bachelor’s in chemistry, Christianson officially entered med school in 2014.
“It would be fair to say that David isn’t your typical medical student,” said Janet Lindemann, the dean of medical student education at USD. “David has been referred to in the past as a nontraditional student in that he is older and has more life experience leading up to medical school.”
Lindemann said Christianson has served on a variety of committees since entering med school and always strives to make the learning experience better for his peers as well as his professors.
“Most students take the responsibility quite seriously and are elected to the position but David went above and beyond,” she said. “He really puts in the time and effort, which can be challenging for students since they’re involved in classes.”
In order to balance family life and school, Christianson said he’s had to improve his study habits. He said, though, that being a parent while in school has been a “blessing,” and has allowed him to do stress-relieving activities such as jumping on the trampoline with his three children.
“I’ve been kind of blessed with an ability to pick things up pretty quickly,” he said. “I’ve always been able to make everything come together. It’s obviously coupled with the fact that as I’ve become older I’m a lot better at getting the things I really want done. There are things that I know that I want – I want to be able to go to my kids’ sports practices but I also want to get A’s in school – so you just kind of figure out what you need to do in terms of what the balance is.”
Lindemann said she believes Christianson could easily advance in the ranks of medical education if he wanted to and could even become a dean of a medical school.
“It’s our hope that David will come back to South Dakota and continue to help us as he has helped us while he was a student here,” she said.
While a potential career in medical education is enticing, Christianson said he’s content with his decision to specialize in neurologic surgery for now. He hopes to someday help children who have tumors such as his friend’s daughter. She has so far defied the odds and is still alive many years after her initial diagnosis, but Christianson said the outlook still isn’t good.
“I’d really like to work on DIPG research and I would like to see a cure discovered,” he said. “A cure is a word that people are really hesitant to throw around anymore when it comes to cancer, understandably, but for lack of a better word, a successful therapy – a certain therapeutic strategy, is one that I’d like to help find.”