Alumni Profile • Chris Holstege '88
Thinking about poisons

Chris Holstege
Chris holstege was part of a team of U.S. doctors that secretly flew to Vienna in mid-December to help to diagnose the dioxin poisoning of then-Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. An article about this trip was published in the Washington Post.

Chris Holstege ’88 can still see the Krebs cycle that Calvin chemistry professor Larry Louters drew on his classroom board. “Dr. Louters did a beautiful job training me in biochemistry,” Holstege said. “Now, as a medical toxicologist, I’m applying daily what I learned in my classes.”

On any given day, that can mean treating an emergency room patient for a drug overdose or analyzing confiscated moonshine or answering questions from governmental agencies about terrorists’ chemical and biological weapons.

Treating or thinking about poisonings of one kind or another: that’s a simple description of what a medical toxicologist does. A relatively new specialty in medicine — there are only about 150 board-recognized medical toxicologists in the country — it was first certified with board examinations about 10 years ago, just as Holstege was graduating from Wayne State University’s School of Medicine. Holstege had done one of his rotations at a poison control center and, he said, “thoroughly loved it.” But he wasn’t sure he had the stamina for two more years of training in a specialty that not only was new, but also offered a smaller financial return and longer hours than his primary specialty did.

“Toxicology patients tend to be people down on their luck,” Holstege explained. “Most doctors don’t like dealing with them.”

Holstege was aided in his decision by something that his father, Calvin sociology professor emeritus Henry Holstege ’54, taught him. “He instilled in me that I have a tremendous amount I can give back to society,” Holstege said. “It’s a great opportunity I have to teach physicians-in-training compassion for people who abuse their bodies through drug abuse or medication overdose.”

Holstege is an associate professor in emergency medicine at the University of Virginia’s medical school, where he is also director of the division of medical toxicology. As director, he oversees the treatment of all poisonings — drug overdoses, accidental child poisonings or hazardous chemical exposures. In addition to the cases managed at the university’s hospital, Holstege and his staff consult on 50,000 calls a year from physicians and hospitals across Virginia and South Carolina.

Chris HolstegeMore people taking more prescription drugs — and, increasingly, herbal alternatives — pose more hazards for toxic reactions than what Holstege foresaw 10 years ago, when he entered toxicology. But the more unforeseen — and urgent — call for his expertise has come because of the surge in terrorist attacks, beginning with the gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

Because of the University of Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and because of the research that Holstege has done on a vast array of chemicals, he consults regularly with various governmental agencies. When Chechen rebels pumped a mysterious gas into a Moscow theater in 2002, the major network news teams called on Holstege to help name and explain the poison. They have continued to call on him. He has helped craft the state of Virginia’s disaster preparedness plan. And there are a growing number of invitations to write and speak

But the growing number of family members under his roof has helped Holstege balance all of these work opportunities with rest and fun. He and his wife, Angela Dykstra Holstege ’90, have six children, ranging from 2 to 11 years old. Going home to the exuberance of five sons and a daughter, Holstege said, helps lighten all those workday thoughts about poisons.

  Links to see video of Dr. Holstege on televison.

Good Morning America.  August 15, 2007
episode: Lead Toy Recall – What You Need to Know


Daily Planet.  Discovery Channel. May 17, 2004. 
episode : Sarin Sabotage 

  Daily Planet.  Discovery Channel. February 3, 2004. 
episode : Ricin Report