On June 4, 2007, the University of Michigan Health System lost six heroes. These men, who died when their plane crashed into Lake Michigan after they had procured a pair of lungs for transplantation, will always be remembered for their dedication and selflessness.
This page preserves their memory. So does the sculpture that stands on our medical campus, and the annual Survival Flight Safety Day held on the anniversary date.
Please read on to learn more about our lost heroes: David Ashburn, M.D., a fellow in cardiothoracic surgery; Richard Chenault II, a transplant donation specialist with the U-M Transplant Program; Dennis Hoyes, a Marlin air pilot; Ricky (Rick) LaPensee, a transplant donation specialist with the U-M Transplant Program; Bill Serra, a Marlin air pilot, and Martinus (Martin) Spoor, M.D., a cardiac surgeon who had been on the U-M faculty since 2003.
David Ashburn, M.D. – His role in life was to be a healer
David Ashburn, M.D., joined the University of Michigan in 2005 as a resident in adult cardiac and thoracic surgery. He was two weeks away from beginning a fellowship at the U-M in pediatric cardiac surgery in July 2007, when the Life Flight aircraft transporting organs crashed into Lake Michigan.
David was an only child, born and raised in Bristol, Tennessee, a community about 100 miles northeast of the Smoky Mountains. He was as proud of his Eagle Scout certificate which hung on the wall beside his Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry received in 1993 from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, as he was of his medical school diploma from Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University.
David graduated at the top of his medical school class with honors. He completed his general surgery residency at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he served as chief from 2004-2005. There, David’s ability to befriend anyone was evident when he was the only physician in the history of the hospital employee recognition program to ever be nominated and named as an employee of the month.
His wife, Candice, describes him as “larger than life” and says, “I never met anyone who was more fun than David—as a husband, a father, a son, a friend, a colleague… he was a small town boy who experienced life in a big way—but never forgot where he came from.”
He continued to distinguish himself along his career path and was named the inaugural research fellow to the Congenital Heart Surgeons’ Society (CHSS) at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the research hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto where he earned his Master’s degree in biostatistics.
The CHSS fellowship was posthumously renamed the Kirklin-Ashburn CHHS Fellowship in memory of David and his enthusiasm and contributions as an aspiring young surgeon and passionate researcher in the field of pediatric heart surgery.
His desire to excel in his calling landed him at what he believed was the best training program in the country to complete his residency in cardiac surgery and pediatric cardiac surgery — the University of Michigan.
One mentor commented about David, “He set an impressive standard of academic productivity.” Another said, “He was confident – and complex enough to list among his interests on his resume: cardiothoracic surgery and wild turkey hunting. And he was the kind of surgeon whose keen intellect, quiet compassion and skillful hands worked together in a symphony. He was a very outgoing, fun-loving, enthusiastic young man who was looking forward to a bright future.”
There were only two things that surpassed David’s love of operating and making life better for his patients: his family and his faith. David was a man with a strong faith in Jesus Christ and a loving husband and father. David is survived by his wife, Candice, and their children Maddie, Annabelle and David III; and his parents, Allen and Marie Ashburn.
Richard Chenault II – Knowledgeable, compassionate
Richard Chenault II, 44, of Ann Arbor, joined the University of Michigan in 1985 as a laboratory assistant for the Department of Pediatrics, later linking with the Transplant Program as a Transplant Donation Specialist. He assisted in the development and implementation of the first modern-day policy for organ donation following cardiopulmonary death in Michigan. He was known throughout the Health System and larger community as a knowledgeable, compassionate advocate for organ donation.
Chenault was so influential in the transplant arena that in 2005-2006 he received the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services distinguished Medal of Honor for his efforts to increase organ donation and transplantation at U- M. He was part of a team that helped U-M achieve an organ donation rate of over 75 percent, establishing the University as one of the leading transplant centers in the nation.
Chenault attended Spring Arbor College, where he majored in chemistry, and transferred to Eastern Michigan University, where he majored in microbiology with a concentration in clinical microbiology and public health. In college, he was a member of the Beta Beta Beta professional biology fraternity and Phi Beta Sigma, where he served as president, treasurer and chaplain.
For 19 years Richard shared his love of sports with hundreds of students he coached in girls’ track and cross-country at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor. On June 2, 2007 they took 2nd place in the State meet, Division III Michigan High School Athletic Association.
On June 4, 2007 Richard was to receive Coach of the Year honors for both girls’ track and cross-country. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Catholic League Coaches Hall of Fame.
Richard Pietroski, chief operating officer, Gift of Life Michigan, says, “Richard wore many hats – as a minister providing solace to families at the time of their loss, as an educator erasing myths about donation among the public; and as a clinical expert training the vast majority of University team members on the finer points of donation/transplant.”
Chenault was a devoted Christian who loved God and family. He tirelessly performed numerous selfless acts of kindness, always finding “the good” in others. He was a constant giver of life.
Richard is survived by his wife, Janet, daughter, Kayla, son Adrian; his parents and his siblings.
Dennis Hoyes – A great sense of humor, a wonderful concern for others
Dennis Hoyes, 65 and a resident of Blackman Township, was a pilot with Marlin Air, Inc., Belleville, Michigan. He worked in the insurance industry and as a professional pilot who flew executive flights on Beach Jets and King Airs aircrafts. Hoyes flew the Survival Flight Cessna periodically for 10 years.
“Dennis was a great individual, dedicated to flying with more than 4,000 hours in the air and an excellent track record. He just preferred to fly and really enjoyed flying for Survival Flight,” says Stu Dingman, owner of Marlin Air, Inc.
Hoyes also was an adjunct faculty member in aviation at Jackson Community College, served on the College’s aviation advisory committee and would give flying lessons to about anyone who asked.
Hoyes was the previous owner of the Birch Insurance Agency and also owned and operated the Alf Insurance Agency. He sold his agencies to begin semiretirement in order to further pursue his love of flying.
He also worked for and operated Vector Aviation for corporate flying, and was a volunteer pilot for Wings of Mercy, which provides free air transportation to patients with limited income who need to travel far distances for medical treatment.
An avid outdoorsman who loved hunting, Hoyes relished the time he spent with his grandchildren and enjoyed taking them to Michigan State University hockey games, ice skating and on big lake fishing trips.
On the UMHS condolence page, a friend sums up what he will miss: “his wonderful sense of humor, his loving concern for others, the great games of Euchre.”
Dennis is survived by his wife of 35 years, Vanyce; his five children Brian, Brad, Robin, Tammy, and Kimberly; and his seven grandchildren Alicia, Brittney, Ryan, Jordan, Bryce, Adam, and Delaney.
Ricky (Rick) LaPensee – Driven by his passion to be of service to mankind
Ricky (Rick) LaPensee, 48, of Van Buren Township, joined the U-M Transplant Program as a part-time transplant donation specialist in 2005. Rick was born and raised in Belleville, Michigan, and worked for the Van Buren Fire Department and General Motors Corporation in Security/Fire Protection before joining the Ypsilanti Fire Department in 1993.
Lt. Mike Kouba, who worked on the same shift as Rick, said the U-M job combined Rick ’s passions: aviation and helping people. “Whenever there was a flight, he wanted to go,”Kouba says. “It was the best of both worlds. It combined medical care and helping people with getting to fly planes.”
Rick knew at the age of three that he wanted to be a firefighter, donning a plastic fire hat and saying, “Gotta go,” each time the fire station across the street from his home would sound its alarms. One of his first jobs in high school was as a lifeguard - beginning his lifetime career of helping others.
After obtaining an associate’s degree in fire science from Washtenaw Community College, Rick graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a B.S. in public safety. He was pursuing a master’s degree in emergency management at EMU.
A quick-witted prankster who collected model fire trucks and loved flying radio-controlled model planes, he filled his barn with the model airplanes he created with his sons. A devoted son himself, he called his parents often.
He talked all the time with his fellow fire fighters about his work for U-M, where he hoped to work full time when he retired from fire fighting. As a former Transplant Center co-worker wrote on the UMHS condolence site, “He was totally driven by his passion to be of service to mankind.”
Rick is survived by his wife of 23 years, Claudia; his two sons, Brendon and Derrick; his parents, Lulu and Sonny Lapensee; his brother and sister, and his extended family at the Ypsilanti Fire Department.
Bill Serra – Touched everyone he met
William Serra, or Bill as his colleagues call him, was Marlin Air’s chief pilot and check airman responsible for ensuring that Marlin Air pilots are proficient in in-house instructing, and for performing IFR checks to ensure pilots are skilled in instrument-only landings. Friends and colleagues remember the 59-year-old Macomb Township resident as a family man with a wry sense of humor who enjoyed his work and would go out of his way to help people.
Serra became a pilot shortly after serving in the U.S. military. With more than 12,000 hours of flight under his belt as a full-time pilot, including flying DC8s and 747s, he had a long track record of accomplishments. He received the Air Medal from the President of the United States for outstanding achievements while participating in aerial flights, and the 1993 Air Force Desert Storm and Desert Shield award as a civilian pilot for supplying materials and ammunition during Desert Storm.
In an interview with the Detroit News, Serra’s son, William Serra Jr., said, “He touched the lives of everybody he met and he just cared for people. That’s how he would have liked to be remembered.”
Bill is survived by his wife, Deborah; son, William Jr.; and daughters, Christine and Jennifer.
Martinus (Martin) Spoor, M.D. – A lifetime of compassion, humor, talent and selflessness
Martin Spoor, M.D., was born in Media, Pennsylvania, on March 14, 1970. He and his family moved to Holland shortly after his first birthday, and then to Calgary, Canada when he was 6 years old. He excelled at school, and started playing violin. He decided at age eight that he wanted to be a doctor and at age 12, he decided to be a heart surgeon. He never considered any other calling or occupation.
Martin worked as a camp counselor for several years in the Rocky Mountains where his job was hiking, swimming, horseback-riding, and leading canoeing trips with six- to 16-year-olds. He loved the camping experience and the children so much that he even went winter camping with them in minus 20 degree weather.
He met his wife Susan on the first day of his second year of University of Calgary medical school, and introduced her to the mountains. They skied, hiked, camped, listened to music, studied and fell in love.
Martin graduated in May 1995 and moved to Edmonton, Alberta to start his cardiac surgery residency while Susan finished medical school. A few days after her graduation, they got married in the Rocky Mountains.
Despite his very busy clinical and research commitments, friends and family alike describe him as a natural, fun, gentle, and loving father. He would do whatever needed to be done to be at his three children’s preschool graduations, music recitals, school presentations, sports games and bedtimes, and he was the official “runner” as each child learned to ride a bike.
Stories abound from a lifetime of compassion, enthusiasm, intelligence, talent, humor and selflessness. No matter how chaotic and stressful life would become around him, he remained calm and kind. He was unflappable.
In July 2003, Martin took a fellowship position in U-M’s Department of Cardiac Surgery where he always said he felt welcomed and at home.
Martin is survived by his wife, Susan Torrible, his three children Arianna, Elie and Simon, his parents Johan and Susan, and his brother Thijs. His love of life and his life of love will always be remembered and missed.