Doc turns tragedy into action for railroad safety

By Katie Morell Correspondent

Every January in Costa Rica, more than 1,500 sick residents flock to see a group of doctors, in hope that treatment will cure their illnesses. One of those doctors is Dr. Lanny Wilson.

For the past four years, Wilson, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, has made a one-week trip down to the impoverished Central American country and always looks forward to the trip.

“This journey has become part of who I am,” Wilson said. “I enjoy being a missionary and helping the people of Costa Rica.”

Wilson’s story started in a rural Kentucky town. After graduating at the top of his 36-person high school class, he was offered a scholarship to Northwestern University and jumped at the opportunity.

“I hadn’t even heard of Northwestern before the program was presented to me; I was brought in on something called the ‘rural development program,’” he said.

Back in those days, Wilson wanted to change the world. He considered becoming a priest, but opted for medicine instead because he had always wanted to have a family.

After Northwestern, he attended medical school at Loyola University and moved to Hinsdale to start his practice. Meanwhile, he got married and had children. Life was good. Unfortunately, rough times lay ahead.

“March 2, 1994, is when my world was turned upside down,” he said. “Our daughter, Lauren, went to school that morning and said ‘goodbye’ to her mother and I, and we never had the chance to speak with her again.”

That day after school, Lauren was killed when a train hit her on her way to an opening night theater performance.

Devastated by the tragedy, Wilson started reading a book that would change his life.

“I picked up Harold S. Kushner’s ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People,’” he said. “I was so upset and wanted to place blame, but the book taught me to live for something instead of against something.”

Soon Wilson helped to create the DuPage Railroad Safety Council with the objective of preventing railroad tragedies.

“We are coming up on the 17th anniversary of Lauren’s death, and in that time period there have been half the number of railroad crashes,” he said.

Early on, the council created videos and sent them out to driver’s education programs. As the years went by, the group helped to get the first video enforcement cameras installed near railroad crossings.

“We’ve done a lot of public education and gotten involvement from the law enforcement,” Wilson said. “A culture of collaboration has made the council so successful.”

The tragic loss of his daughter also changed change his perspective on his role as a doctor.

“Before Lauren’s death, life was going along awfully well,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t reflect on others’ problems as deeply as I should have back then. I think the tragedy really made me think. Now I know that my purpose is to help make life a little easier for others.

“By helping others, it makes life better for me as well,” he said.

Reflecting on his years as a doctor, railroad safety advocate, dad and missionary, Wilson remembers his former idealistic self as wanting to change the world. By all accounts, he is doing just that. But he is a bit humble about his contributions.

“You might not be able to change the world all at once, but you can do it in bits and pieces where you can.”


Dr. Lanny Wilson holds a picture of his daughter who died at a railroad crossing when she was 14. ( For Niche Publications/Carol Dorsett) February 4,2011

Founded on April 30, 1994, the DuPage Railroad Safety Council is composed of railroad officials, government officials, engineers, educators and private citizens who have a concern for safety at railroad crossings. The council meets regularly to examine ways to heighten awareness and improve safety conditions at railroad crossings and to work with civic and railroad leaders to stop preventable accidents along railroad rights-of-way.

The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 21. Visit


                                                                                                        Chicago Sun Times