Helicopter Crash Victim: Darren Bean

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Smart and skilled, 37-year-old Darren Bean was considered a rising star in emergency medicine. In medical school, he was chosen the most likely to succeed. During a three-year residency, he received teaching awards and was named intern of the year. One of his research papers was considered groundbreaking.

Darren met his wife, Stacey, during the first week of medical school. She also worked as an emergency physician and, like Darren, loved the outdoors. Their goal was to work their way back west, to the mountains, where Darren had grown up. In the meantime, they accepted jobs in Madison, Wis., and started a family.

Darren worked as an emergency doctor in the trauma unit at the University of Wisconsin. Stacey worked part time at a community hospital. Their schedules were hectic, but their work was rewarding. Although Darren didn't like to fly, he occasionally moonlighted as a doctor in the hospital's helicopter program to pick up extra pay.

"He really didn't like flying," Stacey recalled. "Darren's father had been killed in a small plane crash when he was 17 months old. But he loved providing the critical care to the patients."

On May 10, 2008, Darren was part of a flight to Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital, where the crew picked up a patient and transported him to a hospital in La Crosse, Wis. After refueling about 10:30 p.m., the helicopter started back to Madison, about an hour away.

Weather briefings at the time reported light rain and fog. At least two other medical helicopter crews had turned down flights in the area, including one in La Crosse.

Shortly after takeoff, a witness called the 911 operator, saying he had heard an aircraft crash. About a half-hour later, Darren Bean's medical helicopter was reported missing. A search was initiated, but rescuers didn't find the helicopter, crushed along a wooded ridgeline, until 9 the next morning, Mother's Day.

"He went in at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and would have finished at 7 a.m. on Mother's Day," Stacey Bean said. "He was coming home to take the kids and me to Mother's Day brunch. And he never came home."

Darren, the pilot and the flight nurse were killed. Their helicopter was not equipped with night-vision goggles or a terrain-warning system. The pilot was trained to fly using instruments in bad weather but had not been recertified by the new owner of the helicopter, Air Methods, which operated the helicopter service for the hospital. After the crash, the Colorado-based firm recertified its pilots and accelerated efforts to equip its helicopters with goggles.

For Stacey, the crash changed the way she viewed medicine, leaving "a bad taste in my mouth that medicine is about the bottom dollar. Physicians are not trained in the risk-benefit of flying patients," she said. "A lot of physicians just see if a flight is available and just fly them. I have been in medicine long enough I've seen a patient with a sprained ankle come in by helicopter."

Stacey quit her job as an emergency room doctor and now sells beauty products.

"I don't think I could in good conscience call for a helicopter for a patient," she said.

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