Cardiologist caps a challenging year with Mary Greeley’s top physician honor.
By Steve Sullivan
Dr. Stuart Christenson will be the first to tell you that cardiology requires calm.
“Heart attacks can happen without much warning and then complications can arise,” says Christenson, a McFarland Clinic cardiologist. “Sometimes outcomes are going to be what you want, sometimes they’re not. But you need to be calm in all these situations. You need to be in control of the situation.”
Calm may be Christenson’s trademark.
It’s often on display in Mary Greeley’s Cardiac Cath Lab, where Christenson could be found implanting a new pacemaker into an elderly woman, sending an electrical current through a young man to get his heart back in rhythm, or maneuvering a transesophageal echocardiogram probe down a patient’s throat and into his chest to collect images needed for heart surgery.
Calm has been a vital trait during this past year as physician staffing fluctuations left Christenson running the McFarland Clinic cardiology program almost on his own – albeit, as he is quick to point out, “with help from a dedicated support team and nursing staff, and an understanding family.”
That calm has helped maintain a high level of care for cardiology patients and earned Christenson the 2015 Mary Greeley Medical Center Innovation & Excellence for Medical Practice Award. It is no surprise that one award nomination cited the hardworking Christenson for maintaining “his typical calm composure” during a challenging period.
In addition to his busy office practice, Christenson is a steady presence in Mary Greeley’s Cath Lab. The Cath Lab sees 100 to 150 patients a month for a variety of procedures – both scheduled and emergency.
“It was a busy period,” says Christenson of the past several months. “You’re trying to take care of your patients and worry about maintaining the practice. You had to find the time to do all that, which meant a lot of long hours. But the nursing staff and the Cath Lab staff were fantastic, and our patients were incredibly understanding.”
Christenson’s McFarland colleagues in other specialties provided a lot of support, but the situation also meant calling on the Iowa Heart Center. To help with the patient load, physicians from both organizations created a shared call system, which continues today. Several Iowa Heart physicians also have privileges at Mary Greeley, including Dr. Denise Sorrentino, Dr. Suhas Bhat and Dr. Rakshak Sarda.
“We’re competitors, but it’s a testament to the physicians that we could put patients first,” says Christenson.
Working with colleagues from other organizations is typical for the Mary Greeley-McFarland cardiology team. The hospital does not offer open heart surgery, but provides the services patients may need before and after surgery. Those services include doing many of the tests required before a surgery, and providing follow-up care and cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiology at Mary Greeley is a patient-centered team effort.
“We work with surgeons at other hospitals quite closely, communicating all the time about patients, sharing information. They know the quality is here and they trust what we do,” says Christenson. “We want to make it as convenient as possible for patients to get whatever testing they need right here and then make sure all that data is packaged appropriately for their surgeons. They may need to go elsewhere for surgery, but that important preliminary work can be done here, close to home.
Christenson sees a number of strengths in the Mary Greeley-McFarland cardiology program, including the strong relationship between the clinic and hospital, and the staff of the Cath Lab, which he describes as “phenomenal.” The support services, ranging from Emergency to Cardiac Rehab, enhance cardiology patient care, he notes.
The program recently got a boost with the addition of new doctors to the cardiology staff: Dr. Robert Shapiro and Dr. Jason Rasmussen. (Meet these doctors on page 10.)
“We received so many calls from people wanting to work here, which says a lot about our program,” says Christenson. “I plan to be here awhile and I want to work with the best doctors. These are the right guys for our cardiology program. They are bright and personable and I trust their judgment.”
A Different Direction
Dr. Christenson speaks to a patient
in the clinic.
Christenson earned a degree in industrial engineering from Iowa State, but his interest in medicine took hold while still an undergraduate.
“I decided I might like medicine better than engineering so I started taking night classes at Iowa State to get my extra premed courses,” he says. “Cardiology always seemed to make sense. I was an engineer, and cardiology is all about physics, hemodynamics, electricity, and treatment algorithms based on sound research.”
Cardiology, he adds, “offers a nice mix of inpatient and outpatient care. You have some chronic illnesses like heart failure that you need to help patients manage, but you also have acute illnesses that you can immediately impact, like myocardial infarctions and arrhythmias.”
Christenson met his wife, Leslie, in an organic chemistry course at Iowa State. She’s now a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon with McFarland Clinic. After the two earned medical degrees from the University of Iowa, they went to Mayo Clinic where Christenson had a cardiology fellowship. He remained at Mayo for two more years, focusing on cardiovascular imaging, heart failure management, and pacemaker/defibrillator device implantation.
“We thought we'd stay there forever. I loved the integrated, multispecialty practice at Mayo, but I wanted more direct continuity of care, really getting to know patients, helping them understand their tests results, and following them for years,” says Christenson. “I felt like McFarland and Mary Greeley would offer both the multispecialty approach and the continuity of care.”
At Mayo, it is not unusual to have patients flying in, seeing their doctors, being treated and then flying back home many miles away. It’s tough to build the long-term doctor-patient relationships that Christenson has been able to do here.
“Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer for both men and women,” he says. “Most heart diseases are chronic. You don’t put a stent in and cure heart disease. That requires lifestyle changes and medication. It’s a lifelong effort.”
Request an Appointment
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Stuart Christenson, talk to your primary care provider or call McFarland Clinic Cardiology at 515-239-4472.