Mike Lopez’s passion for health care started when he was a child tagging along with his father, an anesthetist who worked at various practices around Spokane Valley.
“I always had this interest in health care by virtue of his involvement,” Lopez said. “I was always hanging out in the emergency department and just kind of followed him around. He was really my mentor and my inspiration for getting involved in health care.”
After nearly 50 years in the health care field, Lopez retired from his position as the integrated medical services manager for the Spokane Fire Department. As someone who grew up in the Inland Northwest, Lopez said he is happy to have served the community he cares about, and grateful for those he worked alongside in emergency medical services.
Lopez’s career began in 1973 when he took an ambulance attendant position for the Thornhill Valley Funeral Home’s ambulance service at the age of 19.
“Back in those days, they had just barely started inventing EMTs,” Lopez said. “Basically, I had a pulse, I had some basic first aid training because I was a lifeguard before that, and I guess I was able to cope with what we saw, so I got hired.”
After about a year at Thornhill Valley, Lopez took an opportunity to work for Spokane Ambulance, which eventually was bought by American Medical Response. Lopez joined the team as a dispatcher while he completed an EMT program. He worked as an EMT for about five years before returning to school to become a paramedic. Lopez was part of the first class of paramedics to graduate from Spokane Community College in 1980; he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing, the predecessor of the Washington State University College of Nursing.
“When I went to nursing school, my intent was to go to anesthesia school,” he said. “And somewhere along the line, I got bit by the EMS bug. If you talk to people who are in EMS, it kind of gets in your blood and it never goes away.”
It never went away for Lopez. He worked his way up at Spokane Ambulance over the years, becoming a field operations supervisor, operations manager and eventually, general manager. In 1991 he was recruited to oversee EMS operations in neighboring Kootenai County and Coeur d’Alene. He said that role presented a new challenge for him, as he was responsible for coordinating with 14 volunteer EMS agencies, a private ambulance company, fire department agencies and several volunteer ambulance services dispersed throughout Kootenai County.
As Lopez puts it, AMR wooed him back three years later, asking him to oversee government relations and business development for the company’s Spokane, Tri-Cities and Yakima operations. He said that role prepared him for his next gig working at the Washington State Department of Health.
In May 2004, Lopez became the EMS and trauma section manager for the state Health Department. For 10 years, he was responsible for the state’s EMS education and training program, the regional EMS councils and the medical program directors.
“Through that experience, I was starting to learn about an emerging concept in EMS, which was called community paramedicine,” Lopez said. “I really got up to speed and started learning about community paramedicine, and thought ‘why can’t we do that in Washington state?’ ”
Community paramedicine, or mobile integrated health care, expands traditional care provided by first responders. EMTs and paramedics partner with other health care officials to assist in primary health care and nonurgent care.
Lopez said he started inquiring officials statewide, including Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, to see what was needed to launch community paramedicine in Washington.
“I started having conversations with Chief Schaeffer, and I knew that Spokane Fire was a leader in the state of Washington, and regionally, in terms of some of the innovative programs that were going on,” Lopez said. “And Chief Schaeffer contacted me and asked me if I was interested in coming to work for the Spokane Fire Department, and kind of starting the Integrated Medical Services Program. I gave it some thought and said, ‘Yeah, sounds like really a great opportunity.’ ”
Prior to taking on his role in the Spokane Fire Department, Schaeffer already held Lopez in high esteem. He said that when Lopez was still at the health department, he played an invaluable role in ensuring the entire department could give a proper sendoff to late firefighter John Knighten, who died in 2013 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Schaeffer said he wanted 100% of the department to be at Knighten’s funeral procession, but that meant the city would be without staff or equipment for the duration of the service. He reached out to neighboring counties and into Idaho for assistance, but quickly ran into a big hurdle: Those licensed in Idaho were not allowed to practice in Washington.
With the funeral procession quickly approaching, Schaeffer reached out to the state and ended up with Lopez on the other end of the phone.
“I learned what the regulations were, he explained the process, the process was exceptionally lengthy, and I did not have the time, nor did I really have the patience for the bureaucracy,” Schaeffer said. “I was pretty upset. Between losing the firefighter and all the emotions that go along with that, and just my frustration, I left the conversation thinking we were going to do what we had to do, and obviously accept a level of risk that we would likely have.”
“It certainly wasn’t the right decision to make, but I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get past the bureaucracy and do what, at the time, I saw as the thing that needed to be done: bring those Coeur d’Alene units over and help cover the city,” he continued.
With his experience in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and his position with the state, Lopez was likely just the right person to help. He took it upon himself to ensure all the Kootenai County providers had the right reciprocity paperwork to work in Washington.
“He did that all on his own. He didn’t have to, and I gained a huge appreciation for him at that very moment – more than I can even explain because it took a huge weight off of my shoulders,” Schaeffer said. “Reflecting back, I learned a lot about him, like his ability to be mission focused, to be people first, and he did that for us without even telling me. I found out the day of, when Coeur d’Alene units showed up and were protecting our community. That was the first time I met him.”
In 2014, Lopez returned to Spokane to help institute what he had learned about community paramedicine. Schaeffer said he has been a wonderful addition to the team, one he will miss.
“His contribution is certainly one that has been unprecedented in our organization. From his ability to be creative, to be innovative and to challenge assumptions,” Schaeffer said. “And also take our pre-hospital system and integrate it across the landscape to include mental health crisis, public health and merge our efforts in with hospitals and programs for stroke care, myocardial infarction or cardiac care.”
During his time at Spokane Fire, Lopez also helped to expand their services to include vaccine clinics for first responders and the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he started paying attention to the virus when COVID reports first emerged in China, as microbiology was one of his favorite subjects in nursing school.
“We had our first case in Spokane, and from that point on, it was doing an awful lot of data tracking, working with the Fire Department’s team of clinicians and our paramedics and EMTs,” Lopez said. “They just stepped up and we built a fire EMS response plan that was not seen in basically any other part of the country.”
Lopez paid close attention to the best practices and guidance put forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to understand how to best protect the public, as well as Fire Department staff. He said he worked closely with Spokane Regional Health District as he tracked cases and transmission, and created updates for Fire Department staff on how the pandemic was impacting the community.
Looking forward, Lopez is excited to spend more time with his wife, their four children and their 10 grandchildren. He is keeping an eye out for the next adventure and hopes to open his own photography business. He said it’s a little daunting, as he’s worked since he was 15 years old.
“Above all else, I think I’ll miss the people the most,” Lopez said. “I’ve been really blessed to meet a lot of people, develop a lot of professional relationships, and more importantly, a lot of friendships. I’m going to miss how EMS is evolving and changing: the opportunities and challenges that go along with the natural progression and evolution of a profession that is relatively young when you think about it.”
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