Medicine Surgery

Killed in the line of duty

It saddens people, but doesn’t particularly surprise, when some professionals are killed in the line of duty. For professions such as soldier, police office, and firefighter, for example, it’s expected that occasionally some will lose their lives in the line of duty because of the dangerous nature of the job. Less expected is when medical professionals suffer similar sacrifices. For example, a few days ago at my old alma mater, the University of Michigan, a Survival Flight air ambulance on the way back from Wisconsin after procuring organs for transplant crashed into Lake Michigan with no survivors found:

(CBS News) ANN ARBOR, Mich. The patient lay on the operating table, prepped for transplant surgery. In the air over Lake Michigan, a twin-engine plane sped his way, carrying a team of surgeons and technicians, along with a donor organ on ice.

The plane never made it, crashing into the lake’s choppy waters and killing all six people aboard Monday. The critically ill patient could become the accident’s seventh fatality.

“It was a very sad moment in the operating room” when word was received that the plane had gone down on its way from Milwaukee, said Dr. Jeffrey Punch, chief of transplant surgery at the University of Michigan Health System hospital in Ann Arbor.

Hospital officials and organ-donation authorities would not identify the transplant patient other than to say he was a man, and would not say what type of organ he was awaiting, citing medical privacy rules. But one of the doctors killed was a cardiac surgeon, suggesting the patient was about to get a new heart or lungs.

He was put back on the waiting list for another organ and was reported to be “very critically ill.” Authorities would not comment on his chances of finding another organ in time.

The Cessna 550 Citation crashed about 5 p.m., shortly after takeoff on a flight to Ann Arbor that should have taken 42 minutes. One of the pilots reported severe difficulty steering the plane because of trouble with its trim system, which controls bank and pitch, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Brannen.

Among the fatalities:

  • David Ashburn, M.D., Resident in thoracic surgery
  • Richard Chenault II, a transplant donation specialist with the U-M Transplant Program
  • Dennis Hoyes, a Marlin air pilot
  • Richard Lapensee, a transplant donation specialist with the U-M Transplant Program
  • Bill Serra, a Marlin air pilot
  • Martinus (Martin) Spoor, M.D., Cardiac Surgeon on the U-M faculty

More here and here.

This story strikes close to home to me for more than one reason. First, during my last year in medical school at U. of M., I thought that I might want to be a transplant surgeon. Indeed, I even went out on several donor runs with some of the kidney and liver transplant surgeons. One trip even involved a Lear Jet trip to Chicago. I didn’t know the cardiothoracic surgeons there, I did know a couple of the transplant surgeons who are still there, having one a fourth year research elective in their lab. During my residency in Cleveland, I also went out on numerous organ donation flights. Second, I spent two and a half years in the early 1990s moonlighting as a helicopter flight physician, completing numerous flights to pick up patients. I never felt particularly unsafe, but there were a couple of runs where the weather conditions were not ideal. I’ve been there; as generally unlikely as it may have been, if my luck were bad one day back when I was still taking such flights, that could have been me.

The other thing that needs to be remembered is that this was also a tragedy for the patient. He was on the operating table, all opened up, waiting for the organ(s), and the surgeons were forced to close when they heard that the plane went down. It’s unknown whether another organ will become available in time to save his life.

Far be it from me to imply that being on an organ transplant team is as risky as being a soldier, police officer, or firefighter. If it were, then this story wouldn’t be quite the shock that it is, although it would still hit as hard. Even so, I view these six as having lost their life in the line of duty, trying to help a dying patient. There is no higher calling.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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