‘Seattle’s Medic One’ has Methow connections
Before the mid-1960s, if your heart stopped you were, quite probably, dead, awaiting only a physician’s pronouncement confirming the fact. Even well into the 1960s and 1970s, unless you had your heart attack in one of the few medical facilities equipped with a new-fangled device that re-ignited a non-beating heart or regularized an erratic one, you were probably going to die in the time it took you to travel to the emergency room.
But with professor Frank Pantridge of Northern Ireland’s invention of the portable DC defibrillator, capable of shocking wayward hearts back into beating normally, those suffering cardiac arrests out of hospitals stood a fighting chance of making it.
When the emergency room, in the form of an ambulance equipped with a defibrillator and other life-saving devices, began traveling to treat patients on-site instead of merely transporting them to the hospital, patients who previously would have not survived a heart attack were brought back to life.
This concept — the revolutionary idea of bringing care to the people, rather than the other way around — is the topic of the newly released book written by part-time Methow Valley resident Richard Rapport.
Rapport and his wife, author Valerie Trueblood, bought property up the Twisp River Road in 1980. Rapport had heard of the Methow Valley and was looking for a place with good recreational opportunities, when his neighbor in Seattle, now full-time resident Mac Shelton, said to him, “Rick, do you have any money?” The joint purchase of 125 acres became what Rapport refers to as “a communist endeavor that has succeeded.”
Dr. Rapport, who introduces himself as Rick, is a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in both the Department of Neurological Surgery and the Department of Global Health, as well as an attending physician at Harborview Medical Center. His recent book is called “Seattle’s Medic One: How We Don’t Die,” and tells the story of groundbreaking change in emergency medical systems in Washington state and nationwide.
Rapport’s book focuses primarily on the creation of Medic One, which was “an emergency service like no other,” where firefighters trained as paramedics took to the streets in a vehicle equipped with a portable defibrillator, resulting in “one of the country’s first pre-hospital coronary care systems.” But it also details the role played by a country doctor near and dear to the hearts of many Methow Valley residents: the late Dr. William Henry, known to most as “Doc Henry.”
Flight surgeon Doc Henry had moved to Twisp with his pregnant wife, Ann (who still lives in the valley), and three young children in 1960, following his discharge from the U.S. Navy. He opened a small general practice in town, made rounds and operated in the Brewster hospital, and responded to local medical emergencies, which could range from elderly patients suffering cardiac arrests, to women going into labor, to loggers and ranchers beating each other up in bar fights.
Doc Henry quickly learned that one of the biggest barriers to Methow Valley patients surviving life-threatening conditions was lack of access to transportation staffed by trained professionals who could keep them alive en route to hospitals out of the valley. The donated Chevy Suburban Doc Henry outfitted with medical equipment he had “scrounged, modified, or made” himself was better than nothing, but not much.
Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) had not yet been developed, so Doc Henry, trained an energetic group of volunteers in Advanced First Aid with additional training he learned in the Navy and “created [their] own rules and protocols” and responded to rural emergencies.
As a result of his experience practicing rural medicine, Doc Henry was convinced that there could be a better way to get patients to the care they needed in a timely manner.
Serendipitously, better technology, creative thinking, and what Rapport refers to as “the West Coast spirit of adventure and … cooperation” were coinciding to create what would become, with Doc Henry’s help, the statewide emergency transfer system (SWET). Dying, as Rapport says, was just about to get a lot more difficult.
Cooperation was key
There was already, and had long been, an effective system in place for reaching people’s homes quickly; it was called the fire department. When two Seattle physicians and a Seattle fire chief trained a corps of firefighters to become paramedics through Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington, suddenly the people who could reach residences quickly were equipped to treat patients suffering medical emergencies.
The key to this seemingly simple solution was, Rapport says, cooperation among agencies. “Once everyone could see beyond the boundaries of their own little fiefdoms,” he says, “it all came together.”
“It takes a community perspective,” continues Rapport, “A way of looking at the world that emphasizes collaboration for the good of people’s health and well-being. It requires taking the Hippocratic Oath seriously.”
Establishing “the most capable, fastest, dedicated and inclusive system of pre-hospital care” wasn’t without challenges, says Rapport, but the system is now “matured, efficient, and successful” due to the dedication of emergency medical professionals all over the state who “won’t let people die at the scene” and who are willing to “pull hard on their own oars at the same time.”
Remembering Doc Henry
Although Rapport’s book is chiefly about Seattle’s Medic One and west side emergency response systems, if you’re a Methow Valley reader you will probably find most engaging the account of Doc Henry and early rural medicine in the Methow. Doc Henry died in 1998, but many of those who worked with him are still alive and well, with clear memories of those times. “What they did and how it was then is burned into their memory,” says Cindy Henry Button, Doc and Ann’s daughter. “I often ask them a question and they respond with so much detail that you would think it just occurred.”
A mere 11 years old when Doc Henry started the ambulance service, Button began working in the clinic doing odd jobs and at age 15 was trained to be Doc Henry’s medical assistant: an unusual summer job for a teen. Button says “I was always by my dad’s side. On weekends I often rode with him to the hospital and hung out in the doctors’ lounge while he saw patients. If an after-hours emergency came in I would go with him and help however he directed me. Sometimes he needed help while repairing a laceration, setting a fracture, or delivering a baby. I often went on house calls with him, too.”
Button received EMT training in 1977 while attending the University of Washington and became a paramedic in 1980. Cindy and her husband moved back to the Methow Valley in 1984, where she has been a paramedic and Director of Service of Aero Methow Rescue Service ever since.
Button says, “My family’s life … sounds kind of sexy and interesting, but it was a really hard life. Dad worked incredibly hard. While running a solo practice, seeing patients at all hours of the night and at the hospital, developing the EMS system among other things he did, he was constantly interrupted, hardly slept all night without being called, and was [frequently] gone for meetings.”
Button remembers treasured family ski vacations where Doc and Ann would load up the five kids at 4 a.m., in order to get away before the phone started ringing. “All we did was go to Mt. Spokane or Schweitzer,” Button recalls, “but it was fun to all be together without any interruptions.”
Doc Henry would go on to work with a founding group of visionaries — physicians Mike Copass (Harborview Medical Center), Lothar Pinkers (Overlake Hospital), Marvin Wayne (St. Joseph Hospital), Jay Krantz (Swedish Hospital) and Clyde Ballard, who owned Ballard Ambulance in Wenatchee — to help develop the EMS system in the state of Washington, as well as the Incident Medical Specialist Team and the Physician Assistant Program.
“Seattle’s Medic One” is an enjoyable read, with plenty of history, anecdotes, case studies and humor providing a personal look at the people behind “one of the most influential medical programs in Washington state and the country.” Rapport himself is animated and engaging, and shows not only a passion for saving lives but also a heartfelt admiration for the pioneers of Medic One and SWET.