More than 50 supporters of Dr. Chris Christensen wrote letters of support for him, telling a Ravalli District Court judge how caring, compassionate and generous the physician was with his patients.
In letter after letter, former patients told personal stories of how Christensen went out of his way to treat them, often making house calls and seeing them on weekends, then charging little or nothing for his services.
“It has been clear to my family through our experience with Dr. Christensen that at the center of his practice was a strong conviction to serve and to heal in Ravalli County,'' Sarah Gusass wrote. She said he took X-rays and put a cast on her child’s injured arm knowing they were without insurance, and charged them only $150.
She asked that he be put on probation, with his practice restricted to family medicine without the ability to prescribe opioids.
County Attorney Bill Fulbright and Deputy County Attorney Thorin Geist built the case against Christensen as part of a group effort from the local to federal level. They said Christensen knowingly, with conscious disregard for the risks he put 11 patients through, over-prescribed high amounts of opiates to them — and in dangerous combinations. They called his actions a “gross deviation” from the standard of conduct for a medical professional.
Christensen was convicted in November 2017 of two felony counts of negligent homicide for prescribing the opioid drugs on which Gregg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker overdosed. He also was convicted of nine felony counts of criminal endangerment and 11 felony counts of distribution of dangerous drugs for other instances of over-prescribing opioids.
Each of the two negligent homicide counts is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The nine criminal endangerment counts each are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and the 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs call for jail terms of up to 25 years. All 22 counts include fines of up to $50,000 on each count.
Christensen’s sentencing hearing is set to begin at 9 a.m. Friday in Judge Jeffrey Langton’s courtroom.
Former patient Robert Deurloo and others said in their letters to the court that Christensen was a miracle worker. Instead of putting him through a battery of tests costing thousands of dollars that a previous physician recommended, Deurloo said Christensen sat down with him and, after discussing his symptoms, gave him a $15 prescription that cured him.
“Treating the patient's illness in an empathetic and practical manner, as Dr. Christensen did, is how medicine should be practiced,” Deurloo said.
John Harrington noted how Christensen was the only doctor to correctly diagnose his late wife with a congenital abnormality that was untreatable. As her condition worsened, Christensen would come to their home to check up on her, and would even remove her ingrown, infected toenails — and never charged them a dime.
“Why? He didn’t know us. But he knew we couldn’t afford it and he cared,” Harrington said.
The Rev. Janet Malone recalled that as an elder at the First Presbyterian Church, Christensen dealt “with thorny problems with sensitivity and wisdom.”
His supporters also wrote that they weren’t prescribed opioids, but instead were treated with other methods that at the time were cutting edge. They readily acknowledge that his practices were “unconventional,” like not accepting insurance to keep his overhead and their costs low. But that wasn’t a reason to convict him.
“I am sad that lives were lost, but when are we going to become a society that a person is responsible for themselves and what they put in their bodies?” Kathy Hundley wrote. “Dr. Christensen is a scapegoat for this tragic story. He’s been punished enough. It’s a tragedy to put him away for life.”
Josh Van de Wetering, Christensen’s attorney, said his client is “doing as well as can be expected for a man who has devoted his life to helping others, is almost 70 years old without a criminal record, and is staring down the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.”
He expects to appeal the verdict, although he can’t file the paperwork until after the sentencing hearing.