Transplant Team/Survival Flight Memorial Service
July 27, 2007
The University of Michigan Health System is a truly extraordinary place.
Every day, doctors and nurses, social workers and therapists, psychologists and radiologists come together to offer hope and healing to patients and their families. They use the tools of surgery, medicine, diet and therapy to enhance and extend life.
We also know that hospitals are places of loss, of soft whispers and tears shed for loved ones whose diagnoses elude even the most advanced medical care. As the Scottish poet Alexander Smith cautioned: “Death is the ugly fact which Nature has to hide, and she hides it well.”
And still, for all our combined experience facing and accepting mortality, our Health System—indeed our entire University community—has rarely experienced a pain as deep and as sharp as the loss of our Survival Flight crew and transplant team.
In one way or another, every person in this hall knew and loved Martin, Richard, Bill, Ricky, David and Dennis. We are hurt by their absence, we are angry about their fate, and we are saddened beyond description. Like those families experiencing loss in our hospitals, we are asking over and over, “Why?”
Most important, like those families, we are coming together, to comfort one another and to remember those who left us far too soon.
The first great physician, and the father of medicine, was Hippocrates. He is known for taking disease from the realm of superstition into the world of science. He said something very thoughtful that I would like to use as a guide today.
“Healing,” he said, “is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
I want us to pause this afternoon to embrace the opportunities before us as we continue to heal from this terrible tragedy.
Our first opportunity, and it is a tremendous legacy of these men, is to extend life. Extend life through the gift of organ donations and transplants.
For those of us of a certain generation, the heroics of Doctors Christiaan Barnard and Denton Cooley in the late 1960s were the stuff of futuristic movies. That each of them possessed the talent, and the courage, to transplant a human heart into a desperately ill patient completely redefined scientific achievement.
But what we first viewed as genuinely awe-inspiring quickly became routine. In fact, within a year of Dr. Barnard performing the first-ever heart transplant, the New York Times wrote, “Transplants have become so common that this sense of wonder has dimmed.”
Here at the University, we have been performing organ transplants for more than four decades. The first procedure was a kidney transplant in 1964; in 1968, in the wake of Doctors Barnard and Cooley, our surgeons carried out the first heart transplant in the state of Michigan.
Today, we are one of the busiest transplant centers in the country, with more than 400 procedures taking place in our operating rooms every year. It is, in effect, a daily occurrence.
But we should never presume that the precise, delicate act of procuring and transplanting a human organ is routine. The tragedy of June 4 serves as a striking reminder—and an opportunity—that we must continually seek to improve the process of procuring organs for transplant.
I want to thank Dr. Hagan for his inspiring message today, because he is the embodiment of the value of organ donations.
Let us honor our lost colleagues by dedicating ourselves to developing new techniques and procedures for procurement and transplant; to carrying out more research; and to working to raise public awareness about the importance of—in fact, the very need for—more organ donors. I can think of no greater way for us, as individuals and as a university, to honor them than to help extend the life of a fellow human.
As we heal, we are presented with a second opportunity, and it is one I hope we all seize, because it best reflects Martin and David, Richard and Ricky, Bill and Dennis. And that is to live life. Really live life.
In meeting with their families, I have been so struck by the stories of these men as husbands and fathers who had an absolute zeal for life … an enthusiasm that extended far beyond the world of medicine, and deep into family and friends.
These were six men you would want as neighbors, as parishioners, as volunteers, and as teachers. Many of you here had the good fortune of calling them friends and colleagues, and your lives are richer for it.
These men lived their lives with compassion, with joy, and with love—and not only love for their families and friends, but for total strangers. Ricky Lapensee trained to run into burning buildings to save people. Bill Serra shared his faith freely. Richard Chenault mentored students through the highs and lows of high school. They personified a special kind of caring.
Just as the friends and families of these men are their legacies, so too are countless individuals they influenced over the years with their laughter, their service, and their selflessness.
Would they want to be known as heroes? Probably not. There was far greater reward in approaching each day as a son … friend … coach … father … and husband, because those are the titles that have true meaning. That is how they celebrated life.
It’s because of this passion that I suspect these six men would be a bit put out that so many people are gathered here today, in a windowless room in a cavernous building, on a Friday afternoon. Martin Spoor would want us to be in the mountains, taking a hike; David Ashburn would probably advocate heading to Indianapolis for this weekend’s Brickyard 400; and Dennis Hoyes would say the best place to be would be anywhere along a river, casting for trout.
There is no way to capture the energy and vigor of these six unique individuals in one afternoon. But in reflecting upon them, I am continually drawn to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Oak”:
Live thy life,
Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
Then; and then
All his leaves
Fall’n at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough,
These wonderful men will be rooted in our memory forever as part of the University of Michigan. We can never replace them, and our grief will not end with the close of today’s program. But let us leave here looking up to them and grabbing hold of the opportunities they have given us, motivated by their commitment and inspired by their love.
Together, let’s give—and let’s live—the gift of life.