After two decades of practicing medicine in Puyallup, Dr. Michael Spiger decided in the mid-1990s to take what, at the time, he thought would be a brief sabbatical.
He never returned to practice.
Instead, he became consumed by what he describes as “one of the loves of my life.”
Spiger grew up in the African country where his father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed, near Rabat, the capital. He tells me he’s always felt a strong connection to his former home, even after moving to the United States, attending medical school, eventually buying a farm in Graham — where he lives — and opening his internal medicine practice in Puyallup.
He always had a desire to give back one day, he says.
It’s a pledge Spiger has made good on — and then some — through a growing nonprofit with humble roots in Pierce County.
The effort dates to 1995, when Spiger and his wife, Anne, hatched a plan to ship donated medical supplies and equipment to Morocco — and hospitals sorely lacking in even the most basic necessities.
We went into this little town and met the mayor. We toured the hospital, and he asked me after it was all done, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to help.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I see, you’re a humanitarian.’ And it just dawned on me, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. I guess I couldn’t put in into exact words what I was thinking about in those days.
Dr. Micheal Spiger, president of Gateway Medical Alliance
“We started going over (to Morocco). It took us about three trips to figure out that the best thing we could do was to provide medical supplies for them,” Spiger told me.
“I took a sabbatical to talk to people who’d worked in Morocco. I was visiting all these people, and when we got back to the Northwest, it was very clear that this was something we should do.”
Initially relying on shipping help from a local humanitarian organization, Northwest Medical Teams (which today is known as Medical Teams International), the first trailer of medical supplies — delivered to the Moroccan city of Berkane, near the Algerian border — arrived in 1997.
“We went into this little town and met the mayor,” Spiger remembers. “We toured the hospital, and he asked me after it was all done, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to help.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I see, you’re a humanitarian.’
“And it just dawned on me, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,’ ” Spiger continued. “I guess I couldn’t put it into exact words what I was thinking about in those days.”
Spiger was hooked.
“What we did was very successful,” he said. “It was met with such great joy in the town where the supplies went, we said, ‘Well, let’s do this again.’ ”
So they did.
Again and again.
By 2000, Spiger and the volunteers he’d assembled had learned enough to ship the supplies without the help of an outside organization and “were pretty much doing it ourselves.” The operation — which in those days was informally known as “the Morocco Project” — had grown enough to occupy year-round space at a moving and storage facility in the Nalley Valley.
It also needed a more official name. Spiger’s blossoming humanitarian effort soon became the nonprofit 501c3 Gateway Medical Alliance, which today occupies 3,000 square feet in a warehouse in the industrial heart of Kent.
And more countries than just Morocco are benefiting.
Last year, the organization shipped millions of dollars of medical supplies and equipment donated by hospitals, clinics and individuals from around the Pacific Northwest to Cambodia, Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, the Philippines, Uganda and Ukraine, according to Greg Plett, executive director of Gateway Medical Alliance.
Last week, Plett watched Gateway send its first 40-foot container to Tanzania.
In 2016, Plett tells me, the volunteers packed more than 6,500 boxes of supplies and helped send nine 40-foot containers around the world. A total of 77 people recorded some 6,035 hours of volunteer work.
Going back to 1997, Plett says Gateway Medical Alliance has shipped a total of 88 containers to countries in need.
Plett, who formerly worked in office supply sales, spoke to me last week in a room full of donated gloves, crutches, wheelchairs, catheters, syringes, exam beds, EKG machines and defibrillators.
Having just returned from a trip to Liberia and Ghana to help deliver supplies and build connections with some of the government officials, religious organizations and humanitarian groups that Gateway Medical Alliance partners with, he described the work as extremely gratifying.
It’s a whole different world than you and I are used to living in. The people are doing what they can do with the supplies that they have. … It’s very rewarding. I get stimulated with each container that’s loaded and sent.
Gateway Medical Alliance Executive Director Greg Plett
“It’s a whole different world than you and I are used to living in,” Plett said of the experience. “The people are doing what they can do, with the supplies that they have. … It’s very rewarding. I get stimulated with each container that’s loaded and sent.”
Plett credited Spiger, who now serves as president and chairman of the board, as the reason Gateway Medical Alliance has grown the way it has.
At 73, Spiger is less active than he once was. He spends more time with his grandkids and on his farm in Graham, and less time overseeing the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit he’s watched grow for the past two decades.
Still, he looks back on that sabbatical — the one that never really ended — as one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
“Oh, yes. I mean, I love medicine. I loved my patients and the care … but I would say that the gratification that has come from doing this exceeded my gratification in being a physician,” Spiger offered.
“It’s been fantastic. We did not make a mistake.”