Where Opportunities Lead
Rep. Donna Christensen, M.D. ’70, Follows the Path from St. Croix to Capitol Hill
By Thomas Kohout
Donna Christensen, M.D. ’70, never intended to go into medicine. When her father, a former United States Attorney and Judge in the U.S. Virgin Islands, suggested she consider a career as a physician, the strong-willed island-girl from St. Croix wouldn’t hear of it. Although she says she was always interested in science and biology, becoming a doctor was a decision that came later. Christensen never intended to go into politics either, but somehow a series of influential moments ultimately led her to GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). From there Christensen developed a successful career in family practice, became the first female physician to serve in the House of Representatives, and most recently, Christensen will serve as the keynote speaker at her alma mater’s graduation ceremony on May 20.
Medicine came to Christensen in the midst of her sophomore year at Indiana’s St. Mary’s College, where she was studying biology. “I picked up some pamphlets about the need for African American doctors for a friend of mine,” admits Christensen. Fortunately, she decided to read them first, before sending them along. “After that I knew I wanted to go into medicine. I was probably heading that way all along, but I didn’t want to my father to think that he had been right.”
Her introduction to SMHS came a short time later, when her father was a patient at GW Hospital. While her father was there for eye surgery, Christensen was busy grilling his doctor about GW’s medical program. Based on the doctor’s candor and his recommendation, Christensen chose GW.
“I was scared to death when I came,” she says, adding “but GW had a very different atmosphere. All of the faculty told us, ‘You’ve made it. We expect you all to graduate, and our doors are always open if you need any help.’ That made all the difference.”
Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s was a good fit as well. Vibrant and enticing, Vietnam war protestors and civil rights marchers filled the city’s streets. Christensen and a cadre of classmates spent their free time studying or just unwinding at the P Street Beach near her Dupont Circle apartment, and often found themselves at the center of everything.
She was a second-year student in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. When the news broke, some of her classmates thought that Christensen should leave the city for her own safety. “We were a close-knit group and looked out for each other. They were worried about me; afraid the city might not be safe.
“I said, ‘No, it’s safe,’ ’’ recalls Christensen, but she ended up spending the weekend alone, watching from the rooftop of her apartment building as National Guard troops patrolled the streets below and the city burned.
Just a month later, events in Washington would prove even more pivotal for Christensen. The District was the site of the Poor People’s Campaign. Billed as the second phase of King’s civil rights campaign, the event aimed to promote an anti-poverty agenda that included housing, health care, and economic assistance for America’s poor. In May 1968, thousands of demonstrators descended upon the National Mall and hastily built a shantytown known as “Resurrection City.”
Rather than spending those days studying for her boards, Christensen instead volunteered in the medical van during the two-week campaign. She cared for the demonstrators who came from all over the country, most of whom came from the rural South, and the experience had a lasting effect.
“I was just finishing my second year at the time,” she explains. “It was raining and muddy, and very difficult for everyone. That experience is why I’m serving in Congress today. It wasn’t a direct connection, but as I look back on it, I think it set a direction for me.”
Over more than two decades as a family practitioner, Christensen served in clinics and hospitals throughout St. Croix, eventually became acting Commissioner of Health. From there her political life began. In 1996, after a contentious campaign against Victor Frazer, Christensen won the first of seven consecutive elections to represent the U.S. Virgin Islands, a tiny Caribbean territory just east of Puerto Rico.
Despite her status as a non-voting member (territories are not permitted to vote on legislation), Christensen has found an avenue to represent her constituents: committee work. Currently she serves on the influential House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has a hand in just about every issue that comes before Congress. When she first arrived on Capitol Hill, Christensen found willing mentors in Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Louis Stokes (D–Ohio), who started the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Brain Trust.
When Stokes retired, Christensen was tapped to fill his place as chair of the Health Brain Trust. That opportunity provided Christensen with a platform to address health issues. It also led to a seat on the health subcommittee and a major role in health care reform legislation. Christensen and her staff began crafting benchmarks for the legislation, forming a coalition with the Hispanic and Asian caucuses to identify some “non-negotiable” items — such as data collection by race, ethnicity, and other socio-economic factors — that the groups felt were an essential part of any health care reform law.
The result is a law Christensen believes is a landmark piece of legislation as significant as anything Congress has crafted in generations.
In May, when Christensen addresses the graduating medical students, she will encourage them to celebrate their accomplishments and embrace unique opportunities that arise. As in Christensen’s career, it is not always predictable where these opportunities will lead, however, they can serve as a guide to great things.
For more information about how to get involved at GW visit www.gwumc.edu/getinvolved.