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Committed to service: Christensen wraps up talented career

Longtime Mitchell physician Dr. Martin Christensen recently retired, following more than 30 years of medical service to the area. (Matt Gade / Republic)

If there's one commonality when looking at the entirety of Dr. Martin Christensen's career, it's his ability to create change. In almost every instance, that change has been for the better.

It's created a lengthy and accomplished career for Christensen, 67, who now has some time to reflect. He recently retired as a family physician at Mitchell Clinic and Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, capping a career of more than 30 years in medicine, coupled with a 33-year career in the military.

On Saturday, his friends and family will celebrate with an open house and social from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Corn Palace, with a short program at 5 p.m. to celebrate his retirement.

"I just started out with my goals and there were five of them: God, family, military, medicine and ranching," he said. "I've been lucky. I try to include all of those five things in my process."

Pat Sudbeck, who has known Christensen for 30 years and recently retired from her own role as the Director of Education Services at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, said simply that Christensen has always been someone who made things happen.

"I really don't know how we're going to get by without him," she said. "He's left his mark, there's no doubt about it."

Christensen, who grew up on a ranch near Sturgis, first started working at the Mitchell Clinic in 1985, but the roots of that hire were planted earlier. Dr. Jack Berry, who was practicing at the Mitchell Clinic at that time, met Christensen while he was still in medical school and mentored him. Later, Berry had a farm in his family near Vermillion, which is where Christensen lived and worked throughout college, showing the Type A personality that would make for an accomplished physician.

"I was just driven to do that," Christensen said. "I didn't come from a really wealthy family, so I knew I had to work."

It was during that time that Christensen was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of South Dakota, but the Vietnam War ended before he was called to fight.

Christensen said he was motivated to go to medical school after an eighth-grade basketball game. A referee called an offensive foul against his team and Christensen's coach was about to argue that call, because an offensive foul was rare in those days. But as the coach was about to start with the ref, the coach soon collapsed and died.

Christensen studied at the University of South Dakota for his bachelor's and master's degrees, the latter of which was in chemistry. As a chemistry research assistant, he helped with inventing a special type of polymer which is now used on space shuttles, plastics and in some medicines.

After graduating from USD Medical School in 1980, he completed his family practice residency from 1980-83 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and was a staff physician from 1983-85 at Fort Polk in Louisiana before moving to reserve duty. Throughout his training and early years, Christensen made sure he was prepared for anything; delivering babies, assisting with surgery, trauma response.

"A lot of individuals that attended the school at that time, they didn't know what they were interested in," he said. "I knew that I wanted to be a physician."

Dedicated to his craft

Christensen arrived in Mitchell full-time in 1985. Pam Martin, the manager at Mitchell Clinic, has worked with Christensen his entire career and noted he's a doctor who has always been available to his patients, even driving some patients to the hospital or transporting them himself to Sioux Falls.

"He's had the full spectrum of care," she said. "He's always been there for his patients, no matter what the circumstances have been."

While Mitchell still had two hospitals, Christensen was one physician in a new generation that was willing and able to work in both locations prior to St. Joseph and Methodist hospitals merging in 1991.

He said when he got involved with the then-Davison County Ambulance service, he recalled it as essentially being "load and go" with patients.

"I thought, This has to change,' " he said. "Being in the military, I trained them just like special forces medics."

That meant upping the standards of training and bringing more EMTs to paramedic-level training over the course of five years, allowing them to respond to all emergencies. Sudbeck, who is also involved in the education process of local first responders, said Christensen is relentless.

"He just said, 'Keep training, training, training and I will provide you as much equipment as I can,'" Sudbeck said, while noting that Christensen has led the charge for making sure local responders and hospitals have up-to-date training and feedback systems and simulation mannequins.

Another priority of Christensen's was learning as much as he could about advanced cardiac life support, which handles the urgent treatment of cardiac arrest, stroke and other cardiovascular emergencies. Some of that has been through his national involvement with the American Heart Association.

"Every time there was a change or improvement for cardiac care, he didn't even let the guidelines come out," Sudbeck said. "He brought it back and we were always a year ahead of everybody else because of his determination. ... He was just a go-getter and his energy was endless."

In the mid-1990s, he was involved in the introduction of a Lifepak 12, which was the first mobile defibrillation unit in the county. It wasn't until about a decade later that those were introduced statewide. Christensen has also worked as a part-time medical director for the Mitchell Regional Ambulance Service. He served on a state task force for Emergency Medical Services for 12 years.

A military man

Much of Christensen's medical career goes hand-in-hand with his military service.

When Christensen mobilized to the Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2005, he was part of the Third Corps Support Command Surgeon Section as chief surgeon. His wife, Cindy, was working alongside him as a chief medical planner. They led training for a Combat Lifesaver course which taught non-medical soldiers to learn first responder techniques. Eventually, every soldier was getting some sort of training and basic preparation in case they'd need to tend to another soldier in the field.

As a colonel, he was also involved in getting a 911 system up and running at the base, helping pre-position evacuation helicopters closer to the battlefield, and preparing for mass casualty exercises, while both Christensens also created better tracking for status, location and needs for soldiers in military hospitals away from Iraq. Because the base had planes coming and going every minute, it was a frequent target of mortars and attacks.

"Given the fight we're in, we need to change this," Christensen recalled. "We knew it was going to take a team to train for this."

Back home, Sudbeck helped answer Christensen's call for as many training tools and pamphlets as possible to help soldiers who were suffering from cardiac events.

"He said, 'I've got to train some instructors over here and have to train them on ACLS,'" Sudbeck recalled. "We sent as many training supplies as we could, and he worked with other instructors and other officers to provide as much training as he could."

In his military career, Christensen received a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit honors for his efforts in Iraq. He served three deployments, including in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

Christensen said he's also enjoyed the chance to get high school students interested in medical or military careers. He helped get Mitchell High School eligible for a program that allows students to qualify for medical school out of high school.

"The recruiters like me," he joked.

Christensen was also involved with raising Davison County's immunization rate, which in 1993 was among the worst in the state among children under 2 years old. Along with his colleagues, he set up a program to study children born at Queen of Peace Hospital for nine months, then follow their immunization progress for five years. Technology led to better immunization tracking in the area and around the state.

In 2008, he was the state's Family Doctor of the Year, and in 2016, he was the first recipient of the award that now carries his name for distinguished service to the USD Sanford School of Medicine. He's also heavily involved at First Presbyterian Church in Mitchell, and helped set up Fellowship of Christian Athletes football camps in Mitchell for the last 20 years.

There are a few aspects of Christensen's life that will continue to get his best effort. One is leading the Mitchell Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, which is in a relatively new location but is fundraising to add an elevator to its location at 215 N. Main St. He's also eager to spend more time with family, which includes eight children and 10 grandchildren.

"My goal will be to work with my family. I've been busy with so much over the years," he said. "I need to go retrograde and be with my children and grandchildren."

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