In memory of David Koop – Surgeon General’s son dies in a mountain-climbing accident

C. Everett Koop


The story begins on a Sunday evening in April 1968. At that time our family consisted of our married son, Allen, and his wife, Mary Ellen, living in an apartment only a mile away while he worked on his doctorate in history; Norman, living at home while attending a nearby college; Betsy, a high-school student living at home; and our third son, David, a junior at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

It was David’s custom to telephone us at nine o’clock each Sunday evening to bring us up-to-date on his activities and to chat a bit with the various family members. With the return of spring to the north country, David had been spending every nice weekend rock climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and would report his latest climbing adventures to us in his Sunday evening calls. On April 28 the telephone remained silent as nine o’clock came and went, and his mother, particularly, began to feel uneasy as the next hour dragged by. Finally, at ten o’clock the phone rang, and both parents hurried eagerly to answer on separate extensions.

“Is this Dr. Koop?”

“Yes, it is.”

“This is Dean Seymour at Dartmouth College.”

“You have bad news for me.”

“I’m afraid I do.”

“Is it the worst?”

“The worst; David is dead. He was killed in a climbing accident on Mount Cannon this afternoon.”

David and Charlie, his climbing partner, had decided to try a route up the rock face of Mount Cannon near Franconia Notch, called “Sam’s Swan Song.” While they hiked into the woods to the foot of the cliff, the weather was uncertain, but by the time they reached the starting point of the climb, the clouds had lifted, the pine needless were covered with rime ice, and the sun came out to make it one of those crisp, clear days in which David reveled.

The boys made their ascent by leapfrogging. One would climb a safe distance up and then fasten himself to the face of the cliff by means of a nylon rope tied into a piton (a steel spike with a ring on its end) driven into a crack in the rock by a hammer. Thus secured, he would say, “Off belay,” meaning that he was safely over his immediate climb, anchored firmly to the rock, and now in a position to act as security for his partner.

One of the many precious things to our family is the photographic record of all that David saw that morning, preserved in his knapsack. We can imagine his taking angle shots, first to the right and then to the left. David loved the exhilaration of “exposure,” and his joy was to capture the sheer edge of the face of the cliff and then put it into perspective with another mountain in the background. At the lunchtime rest, David must have changed the film in his camera, because there were only two frames exposed on that roll–one showing Charlie on a ledge examining the map of the rock face before the next ascent.

With Charlie fastened to the face of the cliff, David made his last climb up and then around an outcropping of rock, so that he was out of Charlie’s vision. When 60 feet of nylon rope had been played out (the rope attached to one climber goes around the second climber’s body so that, in case of a fall, the second climber can break the fall of his partner by using his body as a winch), David called, “Hey, Charlie. There’s a piece of loose rock here, and it’s as big as a house!”

We’ll never know the details of the next moments. David was a sophisticated climber, aware of the dangers of loose rock and of stone avalanches. Charlie heard a roar of falling stone, David fell, Charlie applied a dynamic belay, and David came to rest hanging 60 feet below Charlie.

Charlie got to David as rapidly as he could by rappelling as far as the rope would carry him (sliding in a sling passed between the legs and over the shoulder); and then, after fixing another piton, he descended to David, who hung a few feet above a 14-inch ledge. Charlie lowered David to this ledge and secured him there. David’s left leg was crushed. Charlie applied a tourniquet above the injury, but Chick [Dr. Koop] believes the situation was already irreversible from blood loss.

David’s first words were, “Off belay.” While this signifies to us that David was confused (he had a hole in his helmet and a depressed fracture of his skull), it brings the comfort of suspecting that he perhaps had little knowledge of the gravity of the situation. But more than that, the Lord has used that phrase to comfort us when, in the sleepless hours of the night, our thoughts turned to the details of the fall. “Off belay” means to us that, under the circumstances of our son’s life and his death, he was secure, fastened to the Rock, and was then in no need of any other aid.

David also said, “It hurts,” and a few moments later, “Charlie, you go down.” Then he said, “I’m thirsty. It’s hard to breathe,” and finally, “I’m sleepy.”

David bled to death, and from the nature of his injuries as well as from the symptoms David mentioned, the time could not have been long.

In grief, one seeks and finds comfort in situations that otherwise would be harrowing, if not unbearable. So we derived comfort from the knowledge that David bled to death– a quick, painless kind of death. Although he had other injuries, of which a crushed leg was the most severe, in his state of rapid exsanguination, he probably had little pain.

What were his thoughts? Not clear ones, certainly, by the time Charlie reached him. But he certainly knew of his predicament, during and after his fall. Also we can take comfort that his thoughts must have been exercised in prayer to his Savior, who even then was reaching out to receive him.

As the first long days and nights after David’s death wore on, many of our children’s friends came to our home–some having traveled a distance from their colleges and schools. Sudden death at 20 is a shocking and sobering fact. It was both heartwarming and comforting for us to see our children gather with friends for such discussions, with Bibles opened, sharing an urgent message prompted by their experience.

Our children’s grief was very deep, and they could not believe that life could ever be right or the same again without their brother. Of course, our family life never will be the same, but we are trusting in the Lord to help us accept the empty place in our family circle and to keep us constantly aware that David is in heaven–which is far better for him.

Because of the nature of David’s death, the news traveled fast. Almost immediately messages and letters of sympathy began arriving. We stopped counting at one thousand. Many came from parents of Chick’s small patients, and almost all of them seemed to cry out against the irony that Chick should lose his own son when he had saved the lives of so many children and had brought such comfort to so many during his 22 years as a children’s surgeon.

In the fabric of God’s plan there is one long straight line of events that warrants narration. Chick deals with the parents of dying children (and, of course, dead children) very frequently in the course of his work as a child’s surgeon, because the mortality is high in the two fields of endeavor in which he has developed special skills: cancer, and the surgery of the newborn.

After dealing with hundreds of parents concerning the impending death or the recent death of their child, one gets to the place where he almost believes that the quantity of experience is equal to going through the situation personally. When a youngster has cancer, the problems are most trying, because although the impending death is rather certainly known, it is not immediate, and in a sense, the parents lose the child twice–once when they are told of the poor prognosis and once again when the child actually dies. Over the years, Chick had developed a way of presenting this kind of news, and he frequently imparted his experience as best he could to younger surgeons in ward rounds, in seminars, and by lecture.

Chick can now attest to the fact that there is nothing in the world that comes anywhere near the experience of losing your own child. In a sense, Chick felt he was a better comfort to families whose child was dying before David was taken from us. Yet this is a purely subjective evaluation, because parents now know how well Chick can empathize with them. Perhaps part of Chick’s feeling in this matter is that several times he has written on this subject and said that the physician should be all things to all men; the one thing the physician should not do is cry with the family. After David died that was an emotional sign difficult for Chick to avoid when discussing the impending death of a child with the parents. Grief is indescribable and can be appreciated only by someone who has been through it in much the same way.

One of the most precious letters we received after David’s death came from the mother of one of David’s friends at Dartmouth College. She stated that her son had phoned right after the accident, and when she had heard what he had to tell her, she must have said: “Oh, please stop climbing.” Her son apparently went back to his room the same night that David died and wrote the following letter to his mother. This was never intended for us to see, and therefore it was all the more wonderful when she kindly sent it to us.

Your reaction was normal, for parents, I suppose. Still, you knew one of my friends just died, and you said, “Stop climbing.” From your point of view, I can see this reaction; from mine, it makes little sense.

You never met Koop, so let me tell you a little about him. A 20-year-old geology major. Dave was one of those few people who really impress you in the first few moments after meeting him. Immediately you wanted to strike up a friendship. He was totally selfless. I have never seen him do anything with his own benefit in mind. He had a warm, kind personality which made one immediately like him. That was one thing, but once you became one of his friends, well, I had had such a respect for very few poeple. His death came as quite a blow to me.

I’m sure I have had some idea of how his family must feel–but you shouldn’t try to discourage me from climbing. It’s something that gets into your blood. Unless you’ve done it, you cannot understand. There is far more than muscling your way up over a rock. First, there is the beauty of the outdoors –many know that. Then, there comes the almost mathe-matical approach. The route poses a problem–where are the holds that will permit one to surmount it? What movements give solution to the rock? There is a strange beauty of movement, a combination of dancing and gymnastics. There is a definite art in the performance of movement on a rock face: balance, so you don’t fall, tricks with your hands and feet to permit ascent up an otherwise insurmountable wall. . . .

Unfortunately, there is one quality you have no control over . . . sometimes a mountain may just not conform to your wishes; there may be a loose rock there that you don’t know about until it comes loose. Nothing can control that. This we have to take into consideration when we climb, but if you have the urge to climb within you, if you can “feel” as a sixth sense the powers of balance, precision, strength, beauty, rhythm, and everything else, you have to overlook that factor (that sometimes mountains move)– there is no other way.

It was ten weeks after David died when his Bible came into our hands. We had been told by his brothers that his bookmark was in Jude, and presumably this was the last Scripture passage he had read. David’s Bible is a Revised Standard Version, and in that particular edition, the book of Jude ends on the left-hand page with only one full verse, the last one. We opened his Bible and read the last thing that he had read: “And now unto him who is able to keep you from falling . . ..”

God was able, but in His sovereignty He chose not to.

Photo: Surgeon General and Mrs. Koop with their son Allen (left); daughter, Betsy; son Norman; and daughter-in-law Anne.

Photo: The tragic death of David at age 20, in a mountain-climbing accident, left a vacancy in the loving, close-knit Koop family.

Photo: David’s parents found consolation in writing a book, excerpted here, about handling their grief. They hoped it would help others.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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