Dr. Gordon Christensen, who worked to expose suspicious patient deaths in 1992 at Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital and attempts to prevent an investigation, died Saturday. He was 71.


Christensen, after retiring, was the 2016 Democratic nominee for Congress in the Fourth Congressional District, losing the race to Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.


"He was a gentle person," said Eddie Adelstein, a longtime friend and colleague. "He never swore. He was incredibly devoted to his wife Alice and his two daughters. He was a pure spirit of science."


For the last 28 years of his life, Christensen was obsessed by the need to find justice for up to 50 veterans who died under the care of a single nurse over a three-month period of 1992, Adelstein said.


"He was consumed by the fact that these people had died, some of whom he knew, and he couldn't let this go," Adelstein said.


A funeral for Christensen is scheduled for noon Monday at Calvary Episcopal Church.


Christensen was born in Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa and Creighton University School of Medicine in Nebraska. He married Alice Hyde in 1970.


He was a trained epidemiologist who was on the faculty of the University of Missouri School of Medicine from 1988 to 2015 and the medical staff of Truman Memorial from 1988 to 2003.


It was in his role as assistant chief of staff for research at Truman Memorial that he first investigated allegations that a nurse, Richard Williams, was killing patients on Ward 4 East in the spring of 1992.


It was hard to imagine that the marked increase in deaths — more than 40 patients died under Williams' care in a three-month period — was criminal, Christensen told the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Hospitals and Healthcare in October 1995.


"First, you have to realize that we didn’t believe it either," he said. "Those of us who work in hospitals don’t usually think of people killing people in hospitals. You don’t work in hospitals to kill people. You work in hospitals to save people."


His statistical analysis showed that there was less than a one-in-1,000 chance that the deaths were a random occurrence. That convinced Christensen that Williams was killing patients, but he soon found out that hospital administrators didn't want to hear it.


Williams was charged with 10 counts of homicide in 2002, but the case was dropped in 2004 when his attorney was able to show that a chemical cited as the basis of the charge occurs naturally in decomposing bodies.


None of the patients were autopsied immediately after their deaths. Instead, 13 veterans were exhumed in February 1993, some who had been buried for nearly a year.


Christensen, after completing his statistical analysis, brought his findings to the hospital director, J.L. Kurzejeski, on Sept. 2, 1992. At the time, Christensen was acting chief of staff, second in command of the hospital.


"I analyzed the data, called an emergency meeting, and told the hospital director, Mr. Kurzejeski, point blank that there were objective reasons to think that Nurse H was killing patients and the FBI must be immediately informed," Christensen said at the hearing. "Mr. Kurzejeski refused to call the FBI and repeatedly refused to call the FBI over the following months."


News stories about the deaths broke in late September 1992. The FBI launched an investigation within 10 days. Hospital employees familiar with Christensen's work met with then-state Rep. Ken Jacob, telling him the number of deaths could be as high as 50, and he helped put them in touch with the agency.


"The information I have is not legally conclusive," Jacob said at the time. "But personally, after looking at it, it is horrifying even to think about the possibilities."


Christensen did not take his concerns public until January 1995, after the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General reviewed his analysis and found that instead of a one-in-1,000 chance of the deaths being randomly associated with the nurse, the actual chance it was not murder was only one-in-1-million.


Christensen said at that time that he was prevented from presenting his statistical analysis of problems with deaths on Ward 4 East to a board of investigators set up by Truman Memorial administrators.


He also said that administrators barred him from getting outside help and that he watched the destruction of documents related to the investigation.


"To the best of my knowledge (the hospital investigative board) worked in complete ignorance" of the statistical analysis, Christensen said in a 1995 interview.


The VA Inspector General looked at Christensen's allegations of a cover-up. In its report, issued in early fall 1995, the OIG concluded that there was no intentional cover-up; however, the top management was described as dysfunctional and incapable of working together as a team, according to a summary given at the October 1995 hearing.


In his testimony that day, Christensen was brutal in his assessment.


"The report is wrong because it is an incomplete, dishonest, biased, flawed, and distorted presentation of the events that took place in Columbia," Christensen said. "The report is dangerous because acceptance of this report promotes the cover-up of this mess and endorses the VA’s policy of intimidation of whistle blowers."


The only time the issues of whether Williams was killing patients was fully aired in court came in August 1998, during the trial for a Fulton family suing the government for the wrongful death of Elzie Havrum in June 1992. At the end of the trial, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey awarded the family $450,000 compensation and excoriated Truman Memorial administrators for lack of response to a severe problem.


"I am convinced the VA staff was alerted to the relationship between Richard Williams and deaths prior to Elzie Havrum's final admission," Laughrey said at the conclusion of the trial.


Christensen, who was there watching, said the ruling was a personal vindication.


"It is actually a very sad day," Christensen said. "It is a sad day for the Havrum family because it makes what they suspected and what they feared very real."


Christensen was elected chair of the MU Faculty Council in 2003 and held the post for two years. He was chief of staff at MU Hospital from 2008 to 2009.


Christensen's research into tropical diseases took him to Peru for three months and to South Africa for a month.


His bid for Congress was a campaign that he knew he was likely to lose. Hartzler was swept into office in the 2010 election that wrested control of Congress from Democrats and had won two subsequent elections handily.


The campaign was important to Christensen because it meant another chance to help people, Adelstein said.


"It was pretty clear to me he wanted to make as much of an impact as he could to make life better for everybody," he said.


In the last year of his life, Christensen finished a science fiction novel, Charon, which has not been published. It is named after a character in Greek mythology and is the name of the largest moon of Pluto.


The novel was a side of Christensen that few people saw, said journalist Terry Ganey, a friend in later years. Ganey and Christensen worked to organize his records of the VA hospital deaths.


"Gordon was generous person and very courageous," Ganey said. "He put his career on the line to bring about justice in the wake of what happened at the veterans' hospital."


rkeller@columbiatribune.com


573-815-1709