‘He just does everything.’ Martin Christensen named Mitchell Republic Person of the Year for 2022
Retired longtime Mitchell physician guides young students, supports military veterans
MITCHELL — When reached by phone recently, Martin Christensen picks up and gives a friendly “hello!” to the caller on the other end. He was just taking a break from some winter chores following another heavy snowfall in Mitchell.
“We got the VFW plowed out,” Christensen chuckled. “We’re making progress.”
Christensen, a now-retired longtime Mitchell physician, is no stranger to lending a hand when it is needed. He extends that hand through his support work with Mitchell-area veterans and veteran organizations. And through the guidance he provides to high school students interested in entering the field of medicine. He might even take some time to help organize a tuck-pointing project at his church.
It’s for those reasons and more that Christiansen is a well-known figure in and around Mitchell, and they are among the reasons he was chosen as the Mitchell Republic’s Person of the Year for 2022.
Nurturing new doctors
Through his work as a doctor, Christensen, 70, impacted countless area lives, guiding them through their highs and lows. He retired from practice in 2019, but he keeps up with the latest trends and information in the medical world, both because it’s in his nature to be abreast of the latest studies and innovations and also because he has many proteges that still need his help.
Christensen has become a guide of sorts to Mitchell-area students who have hopes of becoming doctors. He gives them advice on the medical school application process, gives insight into the ins and outs of a career in medicine and provides an experienced, listening ear for students with questions on what can be a daunting career choice.
He’s been doing that now for decades, and though he has a sharp memory, he’s lost count of how many students he’s helped get a kick start on their careers.
“It’s literally in the hundreds. Probably close to a thousand,” Christensen said. “I started doing it when I first came back (to Mitchell). I started taking students in high school and would mentor them about becoming physicians.”
Even for motivated students, the process of entering medical school can be a daunting process. Before college there are high school classes to consider and grades to focus on. Having gone through the process himself, he knows the stresses and questions that can come up, and medicine is an ever-evolving field.
He worked partially through a program where professionals could provide mentorship to high school students looking to enter various career fields. Christensen’s expertise was, of course, in medicine, so he was a go-to for teens looking to make a difference in the world of health. For Christensen, that included bringing them to the office and allowing them to watch him and other doctors work.
“It takes decades to train physicians, so mentoring them along the way and helping them to be successful in going into a residency program or getting a job is important,” Christensen said. “And there are hurdles to getting into medical school. You have to maintain a GPA and have to apply for the MCAT, and then there’s the interview process. It’s good to have a mentor to help your preparation.”
Getting to see a working doctor in action helps students understand the day-to-day routine of a physician’s work and its importance.
“We gave them the opportunity to do a rotation with us and learn clinical medicine by shadowing us, so when they applied to medical school they had been trained by us and had that experience,” Christensen said. “They have a jump start to learn the clinical side of medicine, and that allows them to make a choice about what kind of physician they want to be and what it takes. Night calls and studying. They know the hoops they have to jump through to become one.”
For this work he draws on his decades of experience as a practicing doctor and his educational background, including his service in the military. He served as an associate professor for a time at what is now the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, and years ago he led efforts to revamp and upgrade the training for local emergency medical technicians, allowing them to provide better care to area patients in an emergency.
He has also been an important force in the Mitchell Community Scholarship Fund, which since 2002 has provided over $1 million to local students looking to expand their education beyond high school.
Joe Childs, principal for Mitchell High School and the incoming interim superintendent for the Mitchell School District, said Christensen has been an invaluable resource for students at the school.
“He’s just a remarkable person. He has done so many off-the-radar things for our students and presents them with opportunities, especially with getting their foot in the door for medical school,” Childs said. “He works with a number of our coaches and faculty to make sure he’s there for our students who want to be in the medical field.”
Many of the students were former patients of Christensen, and the fact that he is so well-known in the community adds to his credibility and the students’ trust in him.
“It gives him instant credibility. Dr. Christensen knows everybody. He comes with an earned credibility and he can share those stories with students,” Childs said. “He knows our kids, knows what they’re involved in, and they love him. He knows everybody in our community, and they love him. When those things happen, when he works with your student body, success is the only option at that point.”
Veteran support system
Though he’s no longer active in the military, seeing Christensen in his military uniform is not uncommon.
He serves as the quartermaster for VFW Post 2750 in Mitchell, and also serves as District 7 commander for the South Dakota VFW organization. He can often be seen in uniform greeting guests at the annual Veterans Day ceremony, saying hello to strangers and old friends alike, as well as assisting in organizing the event and serving as a general goodwill ambassador.
He was instrumental in helping the VFW move from its former home at the corner of First Avenue and Main Street to its current location at 215 N. Main St., where a five-year, roughly $500,000 renovation project led the way to a new upstairs meeting room and museum space, all accessible by a new elevator. That project was completed in 2021.
“We got her done. We worked on that five-year project to develop the upstairs and worked on the museum simultaneously. We have four service organizations that use it,” Christensen said.
Those efforts are all part of Christensen’s service-centered mindset, and he’s pleased the new meeting space gives fellow veterans a place to gather for business or family gatherings.
In more recent developments, he is also excited about the re-establishment of the local Disabled Veterans of America chapter, which had discontinued operating as the main organizational force for providing medical transportation services to area veterans. He said the organization provided an important service, so in 2022 he helped the organization return with a new local charter.
“They kind of lost their charter, so we pulled it back and rebuilt it completely,” Christensen said. “We started a new chapter - the Davison County DAV Chapter 27. Their main thing is to help vets with disabilities and get them transportation to the nearest VA or other health care facilities.”
Having the local charter back means local donations can go directly to support local veterans needing help instead of those funds needing to be distributed through the larger state organization.
The reborn DAV now boasts 74 members and is regularly hauling local veterans from four counties to important medical appointments, he said.
Craig Bennett, who has served as the veterans service officer for Davison, Jerauld, Hanson and Sanborn counties the past five years, said the selection of Christensen as Person of the Year was an appropriate one.
“He is instrumental and tirelessly attacking and aggressively working to support veterans, to support the VFW and American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, the museum,” Bennett said. “Without him, none of this would be around.”
Bennett said the DAV lost its charter about 18 months ago, and it made upkeep on the organization’s van and other necessities difficult.
Christensen saw a problem and decided he could help provide a solution, Bennett said. Community donations were secured to help support the van and members were recruited.
Bennett suspects a good portion of the community support for the new DAV came about because Christensen was involved.
“He took the ball and ran like a wildman and got that reestablished,” Bennett said. “That was a godsend that we have the opportunity to continue to use the van. But also the community provided a large amount of donations to ensure that when the mileage runs up on this one we have another van we can purchase.”
He just does everything.
The efforts paid off. The organization had 750 hours of volunteer driving last year, and the van was on the road 224 days. It shuttled 341 vets to medical appointments.
His overall support for all the local service organizations benefits the overall health of the community, Bennett said. The DAV supports local veterans with its van service, the American Legion is a longtime supporter of local baseball and provides flag shadow boxes for the families of deceased veterans, and the VFW meeting space is utilized by several veterans organizations and is available for rent to the public.
He collects useful items like wheelchairs and crutches, inventories them, and makes them available for veterans through the county service office. He's been known to be front and center to help people from their house or apartment to a nursing home, Bennett said.
Christensen has had a hand in keeping the local service organizations vital, and working through them he supports the greater Mitchell community. It’s a testament to his own dedication, but also to the support he can rally from local people. That’s a gift, Bennett said, and it’s one that continues to give back to everyone in the community.
“He seeks out great people to help get things done. He has a group that cares and that are dedicated and devoted to making things happy for everybody in town. He has people who are in a place to make it happen,” Bennett said. “He just does everything.”
Christensen, a soft-spoken fellow who converses easily with most anyone, said his efforts are just a way to give back to a community that supported him throughout his career. Mitchell and its people are important to him, and he wants to make sure they have everything needed to continue to be a wonderful place.
“You try to do the things you can do really well. The community has been really good to me, and I just want to do some payback to the community and those who have rewarded me for the things I’ve done,” Christensen said. “The hospital and the city of Mitchell have been very good to me, this is just another way to continue in my retirement to spend some time to make sure they’re successful.”