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How A House Fire In Alaska And A Doctor In Seattle Forever Changed Medicine In The Northwest

Courtesy of UW Medicine
Dr. Michael Copass in Harborview's Radio Room. This is where Medic One and Trauma doctors communicate with the medics in the field.


At Harborview Medical Center, it is not uncommon for people to work there for decades. Over time, these individuals whose passion for work is as unwavering as a religious devotion, shape how this massive institution runs. These are Harborview’s “lifers.”


Dr. Eileen Bulger, Harborview’s Chief of Trauma, trained under one of these individuals. His name is Dr. Michael Copass.


“He would carry a radio and he would listen into the medic calls. If he wasn’t happy with what they were doing, he would call them and tell them to do something different,” recalls Bulger.

No matter what time of day it was, Dr. Copass would appear out of nowhere and jump right in to help out.




Today Dr. Michael Copass is 80 years old. He had to retire in 2013 after a stroke.


Among other jobs, Copass was Director of Emergency Services, a position he held for 35 years.


On the job, Copass was known to be direct and to the point. When it came to taking care of patients, he held himself and his staff to fiercely high standards. People who worked with him either adored him or walked quickly in the other direction if they heard him coming down the hall.


Dr. Copass helped change how trauma care is delivered in the Northwest -- changes that continue to save lives, today.


He started his career at Harborview as a neurologist. He’d hang around in the Emergency Room looking for possible patients. Eventually, in 1974, he became Director of Emergency Services.


Much like today, Harborview back then was known as a place where new ideas were encouraged. “The atmosphere was electric, truly magnetic,” said Copass.

“The atmosphere was electric, truly magnetic,” said Dr. Copass.


In 1956 the first open heart surgery on the West Coast was performed at Harborview. Doctors were figuring out ways to do kidney dialysis in patients’ homes.


In 1969, a Harborview doctor and a Seattle firefighter came up with the idea for Medic One. The program trained firefighters to treat people in the field and turned the ambulances into mobile emergency rooms.


This dramatically improved a patient’s chance of surviving once they got to the hospital. Dr. Copass was Medic One’s Medical Director for many years.


Then, Copass had his own lightbulb moment that changed emergency medicine in the Northwest forever. It was 1982 and he was in Sitka, Alaska.


“It was a dark and stormy night,” remembered Dr. Copass.


He had just given a lecture and was at a restaurant ready to tuck into some fish and chips. A phone call came in. It was for Dr. Copass. The town’s surgeon had his hands full trying to save the lives of three children who were caught in a terrible house fire and he needed Copass's help.


One child in particular, a 12-year-old girl, was is bad shape.


“The child smelled a little crispy, like it was branding time at the O.K. Corral. The child was burned terribly.”


Dr. Copass and the surgeon knew they had to get her to Harborview’s burn center, 850 miles south.


“We didn't have any idea how we could do that.”


Using up precious time working the phone, Dr. Copass secured a plane to fly up from Oregon. The child was carefully loaded onto the plane. But it was too late. She died during the flight.


“Later on that day I thought to myself, why in the living heck should a doctor have to spend a day or half a day on a phone trying to find transportation, when it could be there if he just picked up the phone and dialed one number?”

"Later on that day I thought to myself, why in the living heck should a doctor, have to spend a day or half a day on a phone trying to find transportation when it could be there if he just picked up the phone and dialed one number.”


This was how Airlift Northwest was born.


The idea was to fly trauma care directly to the patients, and then bring those patients back to Harborview. It was an airborne version of Medic One.


“One call does all. That was the motto.”


The calls were answered by a woman in Seattle’s Smith Tower, who would then page Dr. Copass. From there Copass would use his gigantic brick of a cell phone to contact medical and emergency staff where ever the patient was located so he could put together a plan to get the patient ready for travel to Seattle.


Today, Airlift Northwest has airplanes and helicopters based from Olympia Washington up to Juneau, Alaska and east, in Yakima, ready to fly the sick and injured to help. They’ve now carried more than 100,000 patients, from as far as western Montana, to Harborview and other hospitals.


“My wife was absolutely convinced there was no more live persons in Ketchikan, Alaska or Port Angeles, Washington left because we'd taken them all to Seattle,” Dr. Copass said, displaying his dry humor.


In 2013, when Dr Copass had his stroke, his relationship with Harborview changed. He experienced his beloved hospital not as a doctor, but as a patient.


“I learned that it is difficult to stay cheerful when the world is falling about your ears. I just stayed in one place ina bed and kept my mouth shut. I thought I did not need to editorialize on anything happening to me.”


He says he was so spoiled he became embarrassed.


Throughout his career, Dr. Copass has trained hundreds of men and women how to be doctors. It was incredibly satisfying for him to watch young men and women walk into the Emergency Room and then, over the course of four years, learn how to take care of a dying human being and how, when possible, to prevent that death.


“The most rewarding thing was seeing that growth.”


When Dr. Copass was at Harborview as a patient, he was treated by one of his former students. He said the care he received was superb.


Today, Dr. Copass lives on the Olympic Peninsula with his wife, near Sequim. However, a big part of his heart is still at Harborview.


“I wish I were there now, doing something that I know how to do. All of the sudden I just had to give it up, which just cut my heart out to be honest with you. I haven’t gotten over it yet.”

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.