Cristanne Wijman, expert in neurocritical care, dies

David Miklos

Cristanne Wijman

Cristanne (Christine) Wijman, MD, PhD, an associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and a renowned expert in neurocritical care, died unexpectedly on Feb. 28 in her Stanford home. She was 47.

Remembered by colleagues and friends for being dedicated, passionate and multi-talented, Wijman was a highly accomplished and skilled clinician, researcher and teacher. She built Stanford's neurocritical care program from the ground up, and she devoted her career to improving the quality of care for critically ill neurological patients.

"Christine led by example; she was the strongest patient advocate I have ever come across," said Chitra Venkat, MD, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, who was mentored by Wijman. "She believed in science and research and worked hard to further our young field of neurocritical care. … She was very giving and generous with her knowledge, her time, her skill and her wisdom."

"Dr. Wijman was a leader in neurocritical care whose scholarly and clinical work have advanced the care of patients throughout the world," said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. "Her passing is a great loss for the Stanford community, and we extend our heartfelt sympathy to her family."

Wijman served as director of the neurocritical care program since its inception in 2001. There, she oversaw and trained colleagues on the care of critically ill patients in the intensive care unit with cerebrovascular and other neurologic disorders. Furthering the understanding of these disorders and identifying new treatment options were a main focus of her work.

"She entirely changed the way we care for patients with neurocritical illnesses at Stanford," said Ann Weinacker, MD, professor of medicine and chief of staff at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. "She helped us realize how much could be done for people with devastating strokes or other neurologic illnesses, and she taught us how important it was to act quickly to evaluate someone with sudden changes in their condition."

Wijman's specific research interests included the causes and optimal treatment of brain hemorrhages, the use of hypothermia for the treatment of stroke and brain injury, and the prediction of outcomes in critically ill neurologic patients, such as comatose survivors of cardiac arrest. At the time of her death, she was the principal investigator on several clinical trials. A 2009 Stanford Hospital article noted that her R01 grants "made her the only critical care neurologist in the U.S. with this level of NIH funding success."

Born in Amsterdam into a medical family (her father was an obstetrician and her mother a nurse), Wijman received her medical degree from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. It was her love of adventure and trying new things that first brought her to the United States, where she did a fellowship in robotics at Case Western University in Ohio. She did her residency at the Boston Medical Center and completed three fellowships at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center before doing a fellowship in critical care neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1999. Carlos Kase, MD, neurologist in chief at Boston Medical Center, whom Wijman worked under, said he considers her "one of our favorite trainees of all time."

"From the very beginning of our contacts I was impressed by her clear intelligence and tremendous drive to succeed," said Kase, adding that Wijman went on to make many important contributions to the field. "Cristanne will be missed in the stroke community and especially here at her Boston home, where she has many friends."

Wijman held neurology positions at both Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Utrecht's medical center in the Netherlands before coming to Stanford as an assistant professor in 2001. There was no neurocritical care program at Stanford at the time, and her husband, David Reitman, MD, recalls her working tirelessly to get it up and running. She was promoted to associate professor in 2007, the same year she was awarded a PhD from the University of Utrecht. She became director of Stanford's neurocritical care fellowship training program in the mid-2000s.

She was a gifted teacher, whose trainees were immediately exposed to her larger-than-life personality. "I'll never forget meeting her," said Venkat, recalling her days as a resident. "She came striding into the team conference room, wearing her scrubs, with a booming laugh — and from that minute on, she owned the room. It took me a whole day to get over the fact that this young woman with a Dutch accent was actually a neurologist."

"She was truly one of a kind," said Anna Finley Caulfield, MD, Stanford's first neurocritical care fellow and now an assistant clinical professor. "She was passionate about everything she did in life — but most of all her work. That is what made her such a fantastic clinician, educator and researcher."

Wijman published extensively, having authored more than 75 peer-reviewed articles and more than 120 peer-reviewed abstracts. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2006 Lysia Forno Award for Teaching Excellence, given to her by Stanford neurology residents, and the 2009 Denise O'Leary Award for Clinical Excellence from Stanford Hospital & Clinics. "She is a role model for the physician as patient advocate," Mariann Byerwalter, chair of the hospital's board of directors, said upon presenting Wijman with the award.

Wijman was known to be energetic and committed, both in her professional and personal life — someone who, her husband said, "lived life to the fullest." The type of person to be the first on the dance floor, Wijman loved being part of the HyperTonics, a band she founded and sang in that was made up of several other Stanford neurologists. "I was always someone who loved to dance and sing, and I could keep the tune," Wijman said in 2011, adding that the band was formed "really just for fun" in the beginning.

She was proud of her Dutch roots and taught the language to her two children, took her family on biannual visits to the Netherlands, and frequently brought home treats from her native country, such as a Dutch cheese of which she was particularly fond.

She loved her work, Reitman said, and encouraged patients to call her at home at any hour. She "devoted everything to whatever she was working on," he said, adding that she was immensely proud of having not missed one day of work while undergoing successful breast cancer treatment in 2010.

Reflecting on her accomplishments, Reitman said: "She achieved everything she set out to do."

In addition to Reitman, Wijman is survived by her son, Fred; her daughter, Anna; her sister, Marjolein Wijman-Schulten; and her brother, Gert-Jan Wijman.

The family held a private memorial service on March 8.

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