MARCH 2009


International Care Right in Our Neighborhood

For the past nine of the 36 years he has been with UCLA Health System, Nels Christianson has been helping our international patients with their healthcare needs, from coordinating referrals to escorting them to appointments.

What personal traits make you perfect for your job?
I speak Spanish, Portuguese, some French and Sign Language and love meeting people from around the world. At the end of the day, I go home happy, knowing that my patience, good listening skills and compassion might have brought hope and resolution to patients whom I have helped. It is sometimes difficult to coordinate patient care, securing the earliest possible appointments for the most appropriate referrals and treatments at UCLA, but the whole UCLA family always helps me with the most unusual referrals.

Tell me more about your role in International Relations.
I am usually the first contact an international patient from Europe, Canada or Latin America will meet at UCLA. I collect medical reports from the patient, forward them to the appropriate specialist, obtain a treatment plan, prepare a letter of estimated charges, collect the required deposit and sometimes translate. I also coordinate appointments, verify insurance coverage, reconcile accounts, make hotel reservations, provide tours of the hospital, and most importantly, give encouragement.

What is your background?
I grew up with two brothers, two sisters and a lot of relatives in my terrific hometown of Merced, California. My maternal grandmother was from Spain and only spoke Spanish, which gave me a great opportunity to learn a foreign language and second culture at a young age. My mother was a native Spanish speaker and my father was a native Norwegian speaker and also spoke Spanish and French. When I was 12, I worked all summer at the Mexican Bracero camp kitchen that my father administered and helped serve food to the men working there. At UC Santa Barbara, I majored in political science and Latin American Studies and spent the summer of 1972 in an intensive Portuguese language course at Georgetown. I also received a Rotary Foundation scholarship to Brazil in 1976 and studied there for 18 months. I have returned to Brazil 12 times since then, to visit friends and to travel.

Which patient experiences have touched you the most?
There have been so many. A famous Golden Era actress winked at me once and I used to meet a lot of movie stars as a patient liaison in the former Wilson Pavilion. But seriously, in the early 1980s, I visited a Brazilian inpatient and his wife a few times on 6 West and as we became friends, I gave them my home telephone number. One night the wife called, frantic because someone was trying to break into her hotel room. She barely spoke English, so I called to alert the hotel staff and then drove right over to pick her up and insisted she sleep at our home for her own peace of mind. Both she and her husband were very grateful and we have remained close friends.

Then there was the time I escorted two boys from Ecuador to Los Angeles. They were coming to receive cardiac services under our Two Marias International Children’s Fund, for which I am the administrative coordinator. The 6-year-old was very homesick and teary through the whole flight. I was touched that the 12-year-old completely cared for him and comforted him, making the job I had to do very easy, even though they had just met for the first time at the airport in Guayaquil. It reinforced what I frequently experience working at UCLA: In the face of adversity, patients, families and strangers connect and find comfort in their common humanity.

What are your personal hobbies?
Hobby is my middle name! I collect stamps, postmarks and Zuni carved fetishes. I enjoy ceramics, photography, travel, hiking and gardening. I have more than 500 cacti and succulents, most growing in my handmade pots. I have traveled to most of the countries of Latin America. I’m the newsletter editor for our Westside cactus club of 100 members. I’m a published poet and was recently invited by a poet friend to be a judge at the Madera County Poetry Out Loud recitation contest in Oakhurst. The event was sponsored by the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. It felt good to support poetry and to encourage high school students to recite in public. I have four cats, three ducks and 13 chickens and, yes, I do get a lot of fresh eggs!