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We Remember the Three Men Who Gave Their Lives to Transport a Heart for a Waiting Patient

On this, the final day of 2011,we would would like to pay tribute to three fallen air medical crewmen who tragically lost their lives en route to pick up a heart for a patient’s life-saving transplant.

Hoke Smith, a pilot who was a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, founded SK Jets in St. Augustine in 1997. Having learned to fly at the age of 16, he earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross in the Vietnam War, deftly piloting both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for the U.S. Army. He piloted medical transports “quite often,” and “loved to fly” according to his son, Derrick Smith, the general manager of SK Jets. Far from being just the owner of the company, Hoke was also an active and highly-requested pilot for charter clients.

Dr. Luis Bonilla was an extremely knowledgeable, well-respected heart surgeon who divided his contributions to medicine between the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Originally from Columbia, he followed his dream of becoming a doctor – going so far as to return to medical school and start over when his medical licenses from Columbia would not transfer. He was known for his compassion and dedication to his work. His wife Tracy described him as “a wonderful husband and father.”

David Hines began in the medical field after retiring from a 25-year military career. He had served his country for almost 30 years as an emergency trauma technician in the Air Force National Guard, then as a Master Sergeant in the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard. Deputy rescue chief for a volunteer fire department and an organ procurement technician for LifeQuest, he is remembered by those who were fortuitous enough to know him as a selfless, benevolent team member who placed his patients’ interests above all.

These three men – professionals, respected in the air medical field – heroes – gave their lives to transport a donated heart to save the life of a patient waiting at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

The NTSB said there was no record of a distress call, and no indication of what caused the accident. Investigators believe the helicopter was moving forward when it descended in the woods southwest of Green Cove Springs, near Palatka, Florida. Further investigation is currently underway, and a more detailed official report can be expected next week.

The helicopter was en route from Jacksonville, Florida to Shands Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida. No flight plan had been filed, according to the FAA.

The heart was not recovered from the donor. A spokesperson for LifeQuest Organ Recovery Service said it was too far along in the process of lining up recipients and surgical teams to get the heart to another patient. The patient who was originally scheduled to receive the heart is back on the waiting list for a new organ.

Our deepest sympathies go out to the families, friends, and colleagues of these accomplished air medical crewmen. The air medical field will be far poorer for their loss.

Our thoughts are also with the patient who is awaiting a new organ, as well as family members and loved ones. We understand what a difficult time this must be, and pray for expediency in the donation of a new organ.

As we enter the new year, we join the vice president of the Mayo Clinic William Rupp in requesting that the community honor the sacrifice these men made by supporting organ donation. If you have the means, we ask that you please consider donating to the Air Medical Memorial to honor all fallen heroes of the air medical world.

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