Colleagues of longtime island doctor Gary Koch have recently created a scholarship for graduating seniors in his honor and are seeking donations to fund it this year and beyond.
Koch is best known on Vashon for his nearly 40 years of service as a physician and almost as many years as the medical director at the health center on Sunrise Ridge. He cared for countless patients in his time there, helped recruit and train several local health care professionals and saw the clinic change from a fledgling rural practice, supported by the work of Granny’s Attic volunteers, to the Neighborcare affiliate it is today. He retired last summer, amid Neighborcare’s financial challenges and staff reorganization at the Vashon clinic.
Koch’s talents are not only medical, but musical. He is known for his singing ability and involvement with the Vashon Chorale and Vashon Opera — along with writing and leading clinic staff in spirited musical numbers he wrote for several Strawberry Festival parades.
The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation (VCSF) will administer the new scholarship, a welcome addition to its current collection of awards, according to VCSF board member Mary Langland, who said fellow foundation members were thrilled when the idea first came up.
“I think Dr. Koch needs to be honored for his many, many years of service to this island. We are honored to be the vehicle that can make that happen,” she said.
Dr. Michael Kappelman, who worked with Koch for 33 years before his own retirement in 2016, is the main organizer behind the scholarship effort, but stressed that many people want to honor Koch for his contributions to the health and culture of the island.
“We are really excited, and I think Gary is excited about this scholarship idea. It is giving back to the community, which he has done, and it is recognition of an incredible life of giving,” he said.
The scholarship will be awarded to a senior for the first time this May, and its focus is not medicine or music, but high achievement and dedication in any field or endeavor. Kappelman said he hopes many islanders will contribute to it and spread the word to others who may wish to do the same.
Koch is currently traveling in South America, but prior to leaving shared some of his thoughts via email. He said that when family medicine emerged as a specialty in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a shortage of primary care physicians. New residency programs were designed to train doctors for the medical challenges of primary care in both rural and urban settings, and he benefited from that training, ultimately finding himself on Vashon Island.
Koch completed three clinical rotations on the island in 1979 and 1980 before stepping into his more-than-full-time position at the clinic. He became a doctor in Aug. 1980 through the National Health Service Corps, and was obligated to work for a time in a medically underserved area — which Vashon was considered at the time. He was hired here in 1980 — and never left.
In his email, Koch shared some of his thoughts about working on the island.
“Vashon was the ideal setting to test the breadth as well as the depth of knowledge required to deliver quality medical care. I was not alone in appreciating the continual stretch this required in learning. The greatest teachers of course were the patients of Vashon Island,” he wrote. “I thank them for all they gave me, not just in terms of medical knowledge, but about life in general.”
He added that medicine continues to evolve.
“The challenges of primary care today are great and are making the type of practice I enjoyed unlikely to be replicated in the near future. However, there will always be the irreducible, intrinsic aspect of needing to connect human to human for the purpose of healing,” he wrote.
Kappelman, whom Koch hired in 1983, noted that for years, they and other health center doctors provided care far beyond the scope of most family practice doctors, ranging from treating chronic conditions, such as diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, to sewing lacerations and tending to broken bones.
“He loved it here,” Kappelman said about Koch. “It was real family medicine.”
As the clinic’s medical director for 35 years, Koch’s duties went well beyond seeing patients, Kappelman said. For years, he traveled to Seattle to deliver babies and then rose before dawn to see them in the hospital until they were released, putting in a full day’s work at the clinic afterward. He saw many patients at Vashon Community Care and adult family homes, and over the years, worked with the Vashon Health Center Board on the clinic’s needs, including renovations.
Koch also frequently took call. Until 2015, providers at the health center saw patients after hours, treating them for a range of ailments at all hours of the night.
“Gary was really committed to 24 hour-care,” Kappelman said, stressing that Koch believed islanders were better off with that access to medical care.
But the after-hours expectation made recruiting hard. Koch was dedicated to that effort as well, helping train and recruit a long line of providers, Kappelman said, including Mary Ellen Walker, John and Mary Hoagland-Scher, Kim Farrell and Kimberly Valencia.
In 1977, at a time when Vashon did not have a full-time physician, islander Kathy Bonner helped establish paramedic services here and for many years was one of just two island paramedics. She retired in 2010 with 40 years of emergency medicine behind her — many of those working with Koch. He was different than many other doctors she worked with, she said: always available, always seeming happy to hear from her — even at 3 a.m. — and appreciative of being kept up to date on his patients. He would sometimes meet Bonner and her paramedic partner Stan Horan at patients’ homes or out in the field and participate in critical care efforts with them.
“Sometimes we would stay together all night at the clinic, taking care of a patient and trying to keep them out of the hospital. You just don’t see that anymore,” she said. “The way he served the island was incredible.”
Stories from some of Koch’s patients echo her words.
Lauri Hennessey, a patient and fellow singer, was quick to praise his involvement with her family.
“One of the great joys of living in this small town was always Gary Koch in our lives as our doctor,” she said.
Her daughter had asthma, Hennessey said, and looked to Koch for support and care during years of emergencies. As Hennessey grew to know him through musical theater, he spent extra time providing asthma control tips and techniques. His care had a large effect beyond the asthma.
“When my daughter decided to pursue medicine, Gary was the person she spoke about as her inspiration,” she said, noting that he has offered to continue giving her daughter advice now that she is in college with plans for medical school. “They don’t make doctors like Gary anymore. He was reachable, kind-hearted, knew his patients’ stories and lives and was an amazing listener and mentor to many young kids and future doctors.”
Islander Antonio Dittmann’s visit with Koch that stands out the most vividly occurred in August of 2009, he said. Dittmann, new to the Vashon and without a doctor, had been the victim of a violent attack. His husband called the clinic, insisting they see Koch.
“Dr. Koch was everything I needed him to be. He was compassionate, helped us cope with the emotional fallout, and continued to treat me for months until I was able to transition to a physician who specialized in PTSD. There were times I felt like he (and Ray [Dittmann’s husband]) were the only people in the world I could trust,” he said.
That concern carried forward to last summer. Dittmann had developed symptoms of a possible heart problem, he said, and Koch made sure he got an appointment with him, despite the fact that his schedule in his final weeks at the clinic was back-to-back patients throughout the day.
“You don’t get that kind of ‘human’ touch anymore,” he said. “Dr. Koch is truly amongst the last of his kind.”
Despite his long hours in the clinic, Koch found time to pursue his passion for music. Jennifer Krikawa, who heads Vashon Opera, has worked with Koch in nearly all of the opera’s 18 productions. He has performed as a soloist and as a member of the chorus.
“He has a beautiful tenor voice that is really strong and has a lot of ring to it that carries the other tenors. He supports the other voices when he sings,” she said, noting that he comes prepared musically and is a true leader.
She added that Koch’s son Dieter, a professional oboist who lives out of state, returns to Vashon to perform in the orchestra when his father performs.
“It is a huge benefit for the opera, to have Gary’s voice and also to have Dieter, who is a phenomenal musician,” she said.
Coming up this spring, Koch will play the doctor in Vashon Opera’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Regarding what comes next — beyond the Vashon Opera stage — Koch said he is enjoying retirement and spending time with family.
“Medicine may still offer opportunities to me, but so might other interests,” he wrote.
As for the new scholarship, Tom Langland, former co-owner of the Vashon Pharmacy and a colleague of Koch’s for 25 years, said it is clear the community holds Koch in high regard, but that many do not know how much he provided on his own time. He added that Koch’s wife Marlee and two grown children also deserve thanks for the many hours that they missed their husband and father, away at the clinic.
“I can think of no better way to recognize Gary Koch than by creating an ongoing scholarship in his honor,” Langland said.
Koch also acknowledged the scholarship, saying he is pleased his service is being commemorated in such a way.
“What a nice gift to the community that has given me so much!” he wrote.
Donations can be made by sending a check to the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation (or VCSF), PO Box 1413, Vashon, WA 98070 or online at vashonscholarshipfoundation.org. Indicate on the check or online form that it is to the Dr. Gary Koch Scholarship Fund.