Dr. Luis Bonilla came to the U.S. from Cali, Colombia, 15 years ago and wanted to continue his dream of becoming a doctor. His medical licenses weren’t valid here, so he returned to college and started over.
Eventually, he became a heart surgeon in Minnesota, landed a plum job at the Mayo Clinic.
Bonilla, 49, died along with two others in a helicopter crash while they were on their way to pick up a heart for a transplant in Gainesville. David Hines, an organ procurement technician and helicopter pilot E. Hoke Smith of SK Jets in St. Augustine also were killed.
Bonilla graduated from Our Lady of the Rosary University in Bogota, Colombia, in 1985 and did several residencies and fellowships at Mayo Clinic between 1993 and 2011, according to media reports.
What resides in my mind and my heart is that he was just a noble and wonderful man. He was a wonderful husband and father. He was a wonderful husband and father.
- Tracy Bonilla told the Florida Times-Union
In July, he completed a three-year residency in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Mayo in Rochester. He had recently transferred to Jacksonville from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where his family still lives.
"What resides in my mind and my heart is that he was just a noble and wonderful man," his wife, Tracy Bonilla, told The Florida Times-Union. "He was a wonderful husband and father."
Former patients remembered the surgeon's kind bedside manner while explaining complex procedures.
"He never rushed you," said Ross Carrier, whose mother underwent lung surgery with Bonilla last month. "I felt like my mom was his only patient."
The Mayo Clinic performs more than 350 transplants each year in Jacksonville, with liver and kidney transplants being the most frequent, spokesman Layne Smith said. Crews frequently make trips to retrieve organs, but Smith couldn't immediately recall any past cases where staff and organs for transplant were involved in crashes.
Smith flew from St. Augustine to pick up Bonilla and Hines at the Mayo Clinic and quickly ferry them to Shands at the University of Florida, where surgeons were preparing to recover a heart from a donor, Smith said.
"Because of the distance and time constraints with a donor heart, flying is the preferred option," Smith said, adding such flights are frequent.
The heart Bonilla and Hines hoped to retrieve was not recovered, and the patient who had been scheduled to receive it is back on the transplant waiting list.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, local authorities and the aircraft's manufacturers are investigating the crash.
Authorities said the Bell 206 helicopter Smith was flying went down in a densely wooded part of Clay County about 12 miles northeast of Palatka. The crash ignited a fire that burned about 10 acres of woods.
NTSB air safety investigator Jose Obregon told The Florida Times-Union Wednesday that investigators expect to finish working at the Clay County crash site by Thursday morning. The wreckage will be taken to a salvage facility near Atlanta.
Obregon said the debris field covers an area 450 feet by 100 feet and indicates that the helicopter was moving forward when it hit the ground.
Smith was a Vietnam combat veteran who routinely flew medical transport flights, particularly during the holidays when he gave his employees time off to be with their families, his son said.
"If you could show him how to start it, he could fly it," said Derrick Smith, the general manager of SK Jets, the aviation charter company his father launched in 1997.
Smith had celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary on Friday.
Aviation experts said SK Jets has an excellent reputation for safety.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.