As a microbiology major at Northern Arizona University, Leif Christianson wasn’t 100 percent sure what he wanted to do after graduation.
He was considering medical school, but also toying with the idea of graduate school for cancer research or molecular genetics. Hoping to get some clarity while home for the summer in Fargo, North Dakota, he had registered for a couple classes and had a cancer research position lined up at the local hospital, Sanford Health.
But on his first day at the hospital, he couldn’t find the lab and tapped a passing doctor on the shoulder to ask for help. When the doctor turned around, they were both surprised to see they knew each other: The doctor was Christianson’s old high school soccer coach, now an interventional cardiologist.
“We talked for a few minutes, and he said, ‘Well, if things don’t work out with the cancer research, feel free to come shadow me in the cardiac cath lab,’” Christianson remembers. “I said, ‘all right.’”
He wasn’t expecting to take his old coach up on the offer—at least, not so quickly. But as luck would have it, although he did manage to locate the cancer researcher in question, the researcher left the hospital for a new job just five days later. By the following week, Christianson was setting up shop in the catheterization lab.
That was when he finally discovered what he wanted to do after college.
Open an Artery, Save a Life
Today, Dr. Christianson works at St. Luke’s Cardiology Associates in Duluth, Minnesota as an interventional cardiologist, or, as he puts it, a “plumber of the heart.” His primary procedures are minimally invasive—introducing coronary wires, balloons and stents in the coronary artery to open blockages. For certain patient groups who don’t require open-heart surgery, this kind of treatment offers considerably reduced trauma, cost and time to recovery.
“You inject dye in the arteries and see where the blockage is,” explains Dr. Christianson. “Once you’ve ballooned it open and inserted a stent, within minutes the dye is flowing through and it looks almost back to normal. It’s instant gratification.”
But most importantly, it’s gratification that has a lasting impact.
“Patients will come back to the clinic and tell me, ‘I was having chest pains, I wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do in life, and now I can,’” says Dr. Christianson. “Being able to open a completely occluded artery can mean improving quality of life, keeping someone from developing heart failure, or potentially saving a life. It’s very rewarding.”
Dr. Christianson has pursued interventional cardiology ever since that fateful summer in the catheterization lab. He learned about American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC) from his primary care physician. Intrigued by the opportunity to get a great education while living on the island of St. Maarten, he enrolled in 2006.
“I had a blast down there,” says Dr. Christianson. “The classes were tough but fair, and the teachers were approachable and fun to work with. And we had a terrific class. I’m still friends with a lot of my classmates from AUC.”
After graduating in 2008, Dr. Christianson completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he was named chief resident in his fourth year. Afterwards, he took on a fellowship in cardiovascular disease at the University of South Florida, gaining more leadership experience as chief fellow.
His advice to medical students? “No matter what you’re doing, immerse yourself in the moment and try to learn as much as you can, especially during clinical rotations. Once you choose a specialty, you’ll never have the opportunity again to be the general surgeon, the obstetrician, and the pediatrician all in a matter of months. Be open to different experiences and make the most of them.”
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Posted August 24, 2016 09:22 AM