Sunday, March 18, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas doctor was devoted to her patients and found adventure in skydiving

ST. PETERSBURG — Dr. Elaine McLaughlin-Wrage needed an antidote to her 12-hour days and endless weeks of work.

She found it in silent minutes of weightlessness.

The family practice physician loved her job, but balanced its demands with frequent trips to Skydive City in Zephyrhills, where she jumped from planes with her husband.

While he made hot dog moves and daredevil landings, she tended to open her parachute earlier and simply take in the view of the Gulf of Mexico miles to her west. She floated down the last 4,000 feet on a pillow of air.

She died Sunday after her chute failed to open properly during a jump.

She was 60.

"Skydiving is one of the most relaxing things we did," said Ed Wrage, her husband. "When you're up two and a half miles, there is no real sensation of speed. You are in a three-dimensional world."

Dr. McLaughlin-Wrage was known for an insatiable medical curiosity, a loud and frequent laugh and her love of high-adrenaline pursuits.

She had hugged steep hillsides on a mountain bike, driven a stock car around Daytona International Speedway and spent vacations hiking or skydiving in spots around the country.

At home, the local product remained rooted to her practice day and night — though she sometimes rode a Harley on her rounds to local hospitals.

Patients called her Elaine or T. Elaine. Many had been going to her for decades and had children who had also grown up with her as their family physician.

"She was closer in many ways than a lot of close friends," said Marilyn Brown, a patient of 35 years. "She knew everything about your family, everything about your health and everything about your life."

After she broke her pelvis in a skydiving accident several years ago, her patients came to see her at home while she recovered. She wrote their prescriptions, lanced their boils and tended their wounds from her bed.

Teresa Elaine McLaughlin was born in Tampa, the daughter of a female chemist and a lawyer. She graduated from Boca Ciega High in St. Petersburg, then the University of South Florida and its medical school.

She became one of the first physicians at Suncoast Medical Clinic, where she was a mainstay for about 30 years.

In 1984 she married Wrage, a Gulfport firefighter and EMT who later became an agent with the federal Homeland Security Investigations.

In recent years, Dr. McLaughlin-Wrage had started to sketch out a future after her practice, perhaps by volunteering with Doctors Without Borders. One way or another, she would continue to practice medicine, her family said.

And skydive.

On Sunday, she read a medical journal article about Lyme disease on the way to Skydive City while her husband drove. In the afternoon, she chatted with other skydivers as the plane climbed. As they neared 14,000 feet, there were fist bumps and high fives all around.

About 2:30 p.m., she and her husband jumped.

At about 4,000 feet, they kissed, then separated and glided apart. When Wrage last saw his wife, her parachute was beginning to open.

Others with a better view later told Wrage that they had seen a problem.

"It opened, and she was in a violent spin," he said. Dr. McLaughlin-Wrage performed what is called a cutaway, releasing the main parachute and deploying a reserve.

"The problem is, what the witnesses said is they saw her do the correct procedure, but she was too low," he said. "The main parachute fell off, the reserve came out just like it was supposed to. But it didn't have enough time to properly inflate and slow her down enough."

She died from trauma sustained in the accident, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. The Zephyrhills Police Department is investigating the death, assisted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The family of Dr. McLaughlin-Wrage, though stunned and saddened by her death, has found at least one thread of consolation.

"While no one wants to pass away," her husband said, "Elaine would have loved to have gone like this. She died doing something that she absolutely loved."

Times staff writer Erin Sullivan contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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