As his family hurried about his South Dakota home, preparing for an afternoon graduation ceremony, David Christianson calmly passed the time by mowing the lawn.
His mother, Bev, of New Suffolk, handed a large framed photo to each of Mr. Christianson’s three children — Carl, 11, Oscar, 8, and Margaret, 5. The kids were singing and marching around the home and couldn’t wait to reveal the plan to their father.
The photos were enlarged snapshots of Mr. Christianson throughout his life: as a youngster at New Suffolk Common School, a teenager at Southold High School and today — as a soon-to-be graduate of the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine. His family planned to hold up the large headshots as Mr. Christianson walked across the stage to accept his M.D. degree.
His reaction to the hoopla was predictably muted.
“He’s very hesitant to be out front and be promoted,” his mother said, noting that she’d been unsure how he would react to the family’s plan.
Later on the afternoon of May 4, as Mr. Christianson sat with his classmates, dressed in black gowns and green tams, he turned and looked up to more than 30 people who were there to support him, several of whom held the photos and wore T-shirts that read “Christianson Custom Craniotomies.” A moment later, a handful of classmates seated near him turned as well and pointed up into the stands. Mr. Christianson couldn’t help but smile and laugh as he snapped a photo of his enthusiastic family members. He was one of 60 medical students to graduate that afternoon, nearly all of whom were at least a decade younger.
Looking back, the newly minted Dr. Christianson never envisioned life would bring him to this point: a married 38-year-old college dropout with three kids, actually conquering the challenge of medical school and preparing to begin a grueling seven-year residency in neurologic surgery.
But it wasn’t as if he never had the aptitude to achieve at such a high level academically; he simply took a winding journey to find his destiny.
“I’d say overall this is the happiest I’ve ever been,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his South Dakota home, as he prepared to move to Iowa for the next chapter of his life
He always had a unique ability to solve problems, even at a young age, his parents said. After he completed first grade, they said, his teacher explained to them that he’d already done all the work required for both first and second grades. By fifth grade, he’d already mastered all the sixth-grade work. His parents debated whether to advance him out of New Suffolk School and into the Southold School District, where he would be younger than all his peers. They ultimately decided to skip him ahead.
Dr. Christianson said he just coasted through high school, at times socially awkward, and approached each day just hoping it would end.
“I had kind of checked out of the academic process by about 10th grade,” he said.
He graduated in 1996 and still achieved at a high level. His sister, now Heidi Jordan, had been a determined student and graduated as valedictorian in 1994. But Dr. Christianson couldn’t have cared less about class rank and said he still can’t recall where he finished.
Ms. Jordan, now 41, followed a direct path to college, graduating at the top of her class from Syracuse University and starting a career in architecture, which she’s now pursued for nearly two decades on the North and South forks. Four years ago, she and he husband, Grayson, started their own firm, Modern Shelter Architecture, in Sag Harbor.
Dr. Christianson attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to study engineering but dropped out halfway through. As a teenager, he’d worked at Wickham’s Fruit Farm and also worked with Parker Wickham restoring antique cars. After leaving college, he went back to working on the cars.
“Those were sort of invaluable experiences for me going forward,” Dr. Christianson said. “I learned things in those places that I use on a daily basis.”
He next found himself in California, working for his uncle’s engineering and instrumentation business.
There, in the early 2000s, he met his wife, Melissa, originally from South Dakota. The couple moved there soon after and he opened a woodworking shop, Christianson Custom Cabinetry. A few years later they were back in California to assist his uncle again.
In late 2011, he received devastating news that changed everything. The daughter of his close friend Adam West of Cutchogue, whom he’d known since high school and stayed in touch with, had been diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a highly aggressive brain tumor.
The night he got the call about Morgan West, he was driving to a music rehearsal at his church. He started to cry. He thought about how deeply Mr. West loved his kids. He thought about his own kids.
“It had me crying over and over again,” he said. “It was like for months.”
It may have seemed crazy, but what if he could help? What if he could help save a child like Morgan?
“If I didn’t have kids I never would have gone back to school, because picturing them suffering through something like that is awful,” he said.
Soon after, Dr. Christianson set forth on a plan to attend medical school. He consulted his aunt, the only doctor in their family, who asked about his college GPA. It was under 3.0, he said, not exactly medical school marks. To get started, his aunt said, he needed to complete his degree.
Given all the different careers he’d pursued, his sister was surprised by his decision to study medicine.
“At the same time his decision made perfect sense,” Ms. Jordan said. “It seemed to me that his mind was perfectly suited to the challenges of the medical field and the medical field would benefit from his work.”
His goal was reinforced in May 2012, when his uncle in California suffered a brain aneurysm. Despite the grim prognosis — a 10 percent chance of survival — the neurosurgeon was able to operate successfully and the uncle was back at work in five weeks. That surgeon’s ability to find hope where none existed left a lasting impression.
With a renewed sense of purpose and academic motivation, he returned to South Dakota for two more years of undergraduate studies, receiving straight A’s in his chemistry classes. He earned his bachelor’s degree and excelled on the Medical College Admission Test.
With the support of his wife, an accountant and teacher, his goal became possible.
“There’s no way I would have done this without my wife,” he said.
Dr. Christianson not only completed medical school, he thrived there and was elected president of the state chapter of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. In that capacity, Janet Lindemann, the school’s dean of medical student education, said “he went above and beyond.”
The fledgling physician who once considered becoming a professional musician — he plays guitar, drums and some bass — will begin his residency in neurological surgery next month at the University of Iowa. His first-year schedule there will be more demanding than anything he’s encountered yet. He’ll arrive around 4:30 a.m. to prepare for shifts that begin at 5 a.m. and will put in nearly 80 hours a week. Starting in his second year, he’ll do 24-hour calls every third or fourth day, he said.
The program’s goal is to train doctors who are world leaders in research, Dr. Christianson said, so the residency will also offer him the opportunity to study DIPG, a goal for which he’s received support from program staff.
“I’m really excited about it and, as my son reminds me, I’ll be able to help a lot of people,” he said. “I hope that’s the case.”
Since he decided to pursue a career in medicine, Dr. Christianson has rarely shared intimate details of how Morgan West’s diagnosis affected him. Even his parents weren’t aware of the extent to which her story had touched him.
Shortly after the DIPG diagnosis, Dr. Christianson had told her father, his old friend Adam West, how much it bothered him and revealed that he was beginning to pursue medicine as a career. But it wasn’t something about which he divulged much more.
Just about a month before his recent graduation, Dr. Christianson learned that Morgan had died at the age of 9, having lived well beyond medical expectations. He flew back to Long Island to attend her funeral and comfort his friends and their family.
In her heart, Bev Christianson knew her son wouldn’t have time to save Morgan, even as she defied the odds year after year. But Dr. Christianson’s determined spirit, curiosity and intellect will still be needed, as so many more children await a miracle.
Top photo caption: David Christianson, a New Suffolk native, poses on Meridian Bridge that spans the Missouri River at Yankton, S.D. While attending medical school, he would often jog across the bridge. (Eric Dalseide/University of South Dakota photo)