Spring 2021 Spirit: John Christianson (TM ’75)

Honoring our Alumni in Healthcare

While Pio Nono is best known for serving high school and, during the 19th and early-20th centuries, college students, the school also taught seventh and eighth graders for a short time in the 1960s and 1970s. One of those middle school students was John Christianson (TM ’75), who enrolled at Pio Nono for eighth grade after Cudahy’s St. Frederick Parish (now Nativity of the Lord) closed its school after his seventh-grade year.

Christianson remained at Pio Nono for his freshman year, and before his sophomore year, the school merged with Don Bosco High School to form St. Thomas More. Although he admits that he “wasn’t very good” at the sport, Christianson played football for a couple years, including competing on St. Thomas More’s B-team that won the 1973 conference championship. Christianson also participated in student government and spent two years on the Utopian newspaper staff, including his senior year as a feature editor of the publication.

Academically, Christianson took an interest in science, and he credits biology teacher Mr. Cinatl in biology and chemistry teacher Ms. Jache for sparking that passion. During his junior year at St. Thomas More, Christianson began working part-time at Trinity Memorial Hospital in Cudahy (now Aurora St. Luke’s South Shore), which spurred his interest in medicine.

Christianson continued to work at Trinity while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Marquette University.  He then went on to the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he earned his MD and discovered his interest in internal medicine. After receiving specialized training at the University of Cincinnati, he returned to Cudahy in 1987 to practice internal medicine and eventually pursued an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He finished his fellowship just before Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) became a public health emergency in the early 2000s.

When COVID-19 began showing up last year, Christianson initially thought about his experience during the SARS epidemic. Unlike COVID, however, SARS overwhelmingly affected East Asia, with few confirmed cases reported in the United States.

“At first, I thought COVID would be like SARS, which was relatively difficult to spread, so they could contain the virus by quarantining” affected patients, Christianson explained. With COVID, however, “that the horse was already out of the barn.”

“COVID cases were out there before we even knew about it,” Christianson said, theorizing that many early cases were misdiagnosed as pneumonia. “Early on, nobody knew what to do to help treat COVID patients. We also didn’t have an idea how much it would spread, so there were a lot of infection-control efforts.”

With this uncertainty, Christianson and his colleagues constantly adapted as more information about the virus became known. “It’s humbling to take care of people when you’re learning every day. The literature — CDC recommendations, epidemiological studies, etc. — was changing daily. In the rest of my practice, it’s pretty uncommon that I see something I’ve never seen before, but this was all entirely new.”

COVID-19 has shown Christianson just how important his interactions are for his patients.  “When you have somebody that’s really sick with COVID, there’s only a small number of people that can come see them,” explained Christianson, whose private practice, Midwest Infectious Disease Associates, provides inpatient and outpatient treatment at local hospitals. “That magnifies your role as far as interaction — keeping their spirits up, setting goals. I think I’ve been much more cognizant of that. It’s always been part of my practice, but it’s been especially important with my COVID patients.”

“I think the pandemic has shined a light on hospitals that do primary care because they’re the first line of defense,” Christianson continued. “Initially, hospitals basically took care of COVID patients by trying to decrease exposure in the community, and there was not much in the way of a backstop. We closed orthopedic wards to make them COVID wards and stopped doing routine things. As our treatments improved and people were discharged sooner, I think it built in a level of flexibility that people didn’t have before, and some great achievements have been made.”

For students interested in a career in healthcare, Christianson encourages getting early experience. He believes that his hands-on experience while a St. Thomas More student gave him a glimpse into where he might fit in the medical field. It also helped him develop his interpersonal skills and determine whether or not he wanted to work directly with patients.

While he speaks highly of the science curriculum at St. Thomas More both then and now, he also encourages pursuits outside of the STEM subjects. “Medical students now don’t get as much humanities training, and things like economics and foreign language are very useful. I wish I would have learned Spanish in high school; I have since learned about 50-75 words of Spanish, and they have gone a long way in helping me connect with patients.”

Christianson lives in Brookfield, Wisconsin, with his wife, Janice. They have three adult children; his daughter is in her third year of medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin, his son teaches at St. Leonard in Muskego, and his other son works in IT at Northwestern Mutual. He loves to travel with his wife, kids, and extended family and looks forward to resuming his adventures as restrictions ease.

“Families and friends haven’t been able to get together, and it’s thrown everybody for a loop. Being able to go out to eat and see loved ones — simple pleasures — I think people will appreciate those so much more.”

About the Author
Dan Steffes (TM ’03) is the Alumni Director and Events Coordinator at STM. He has worked at St. Thomas More since July 2007 and has been head track and field coach since 2009.

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