Commuter plane crash claims lives of 6 physicians

Memorials are ending, but the doctors won't soon be forgotten.

By Damon Adams — Posted Nov. 15, 2004

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Plato E. Varidin, DO, is picking up where his son left off when he climbed aboard Corporate Airlines flight 5966. Treating his son's patients is temporary. His loss leaves a permanent ache.

Dr. Varidin's son, Mark Varidin, DO, died Oct. 19, one of 13 passengers and crew who perished when flight 5966 crashed in Kirksville, Mo., on the way to a medical conference at the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Physicians learn to deal with the death of their patients. Handling the loss of a relative, colleague and friend is another matter. The makeshift memorials of flowers and half-staff flags are nearly gone. Now those left behind must do their best to cope with the tragedy and move on.

"I cried enough tears to lift the ocean level at least a foot. I have nothing left," Dr. Plato Varidin said.

Dr. Varidin saw patients three days a week at his son's family medicine clinic in St. Petersburg, Fla. The two talked three or four times a day by phone when they weren't in the office together. They were more than father and son. They were friends.

"The last words I told him were, 'Be safe. Be careful. You have a family.' That was it."

About 75 patients held a candlelight vigil at a local church. The office staff has struggled to handle the grief. Initially, the office closed, but it quickly reopened with the elder Dr. Varidin treating patients.

He will keep seeing patients until someone is hired to run the practice; community doctors are also volunteering to treat patients.

"It's going to stay open. I'm in the office, so I'm helping him," Dr. Varidin said.

Headed for medical conference

Regional assistant deans, assistants and two traveling fellows were going to the Kirksville college for a one-day humanism in medicine conference to explore ways to develop a "compassionate campus," said Philip Slocum, DO, college vice president for medical affairs and dean.

They flew from around the country to St. Louis, then boarded the Corporate Airlines commuter plane for Kirksville. Only two people survived: the college's Utah region administrative dean, John Krogh, PhD, and his assistant, Wendy Bonham.

The college lost three assistant regional deans: Dr. Varidin; Clark Ator, DO, of Alpine, Utah; and family physician M. Bridget Wagner, DO, of Warren, Ohio. Two assistants also died. Medical students set up a table of flowers and remembrances. They made green ribbons with black thread to honor the victims. Flags were lowered to half-staff.

"It's going to be very hard to find people to step in, especially considering the quality of what they were doing. Everybody is sort of doubling up now," Dr. Slocum said.

Though grieving continues, Dr. Slocum directed the memorial to be removed and the flag raised 10 days after the tragedy. The college is starting a search to fill the vacant jobs.

"It's time for us to move on as an institution," Dr. Slocum said.

Memorial services and grief counselors have helped heal the pain.

"Physicians are used to losing people. But you never quite get used to it when it's somebody who's so close to you. They were part of the family. We'll never really ever replace them," said Jack Brose, DO, dean of the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, where Dr. Wagner worked.

Richard Sarkin, MD, one of two traveling fellows who died, was passionate about teaching medical students and worked as a pediatrician at Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo in New York.

"[The students] were very much affected by it," said Gerald Daigler, MD, vice chair of pediatric medical education at the hospital. "There's a lot of grieving going on."

Emergency physicians pitched in to treat patients to help colleagues deal with the death of Steven Miller, MD, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

"Obviously as an emergency department, you can't say, 'We're closing because we're grieving.' Just the act of knowing those [additional doctors] were there bolstered the spirits of people on our staff," said hospital executive director Cynthia Sparer.

Patients sent flowers to the family practice clinic in Saginaw, Mich., where Judith Diffenderfer, DO, worked. Call schedules are being rearranged, and patients are being seen by other physicians in the group.

"They tell a lot of our partners, 'I know you're going to be good, but you're just not Judy,' " said Edward Jackson, MD, program director in family medicine for Synergy Medical Education Alliance.

Staff and doctors are compiling vignettes and photos in a book to give to Dr. Diffenderfer's family. Once a week for the next few months, they will send a personal note. It's a way to help the family -- and the doctor's colleagues -- cope.

"We're all going to miss her contribution and her perspective," Dr. Jackson said. "We'll get by. It's probably going to take us some time. She's not going to be easily forgotten."

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External links

Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine's memorial for flight 5966 crash victims (link)

Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine (link)

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