Mary Koch 3/22/98 Mile 190 Parks Hwy Hunter Gunshot

Doctor's death shocks family, friends
By Melissa Moore and S.J. Komarnitsky, ADN 3/22/98

Friends and family gathered Saturday at an Eastside home to remember Dr. Mari Koch - a doctor devoted to her patients, a mother who made time for her family and someone to be reckoned with over a Scrabble board or a deck of cards.

Koch died Friday morning in the arms of her husband, Barry.  She had been shot in a hunting accident during a snowmachine outing with the couple's best friends. The foursome was in the high tundra near Mile 190 of the Parks Highway when a covey of ptarmigans took flight. Hunting companion Gleo Huyck fired his .22-caliber handgun.  The shot struck Koch in the head.

The group had traveled to the Cantwell area Thursday and spent the night in the Backwoods Lodge.  They headed  out on snowmachines Friday, planning to do some ptarmigan hunting as they rode through the high tundra in one of the few areas in Southcentral Alaska that still has good snow.

Using handguns to hunt the birds was standard practice for the group, Huyck said.  When the birds took flight, Huyck wasn't facing Koch, but he caught a glimpse of her as he fired.

"I could see her out of the corner of my eye.  She was off to the side," he said.  "All we can figure out is it must have ricocheted terribly."

The cellular phones they carried didn't work.  So they drove the snowmachines to a telephone.  Huyck's wife, Pam, estimated it was two hours from the time of the shooting until a helicopter dispatched by Alaska State Trooper could arrive.

It wasn't clear exactly when Koch died.  Troopers are still investigating the incident and an autopsy is expected to be performed in Anchorage this week, Alaska State Trooper Capt. Warren Tanner said.

The two couples had been close for about seven years, since the Kochs bought a recreational cabin next to the Huyck home in Big Lake.

"They were our very best friends," Gleo Huyck said Saturday.

Huyck, the director of community schools for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, was taken to Valley Hospital after the accident Friday, suffering from chest pains.  He was released Saturday.

Mari Koch's death still hasn't sunk in, Pam Huyck said Saturday.

"It's the kind of thing that never happens, and then it does and your whole world falls apart," she said. "(Gleo) is just devastated."

Dr. Mari Koch, 46, leaves behind her husband, Barry, 52, and two children, Krysten, 12 and Kalgin, 10.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., Mari Helena Duncombe Koch was the second of five children.

The family traveled around the country following the callings of her father, an Episcopal priest.

"She said when she was 12 years old, she wanted to be a nurse, a nun and a mother," Krysten said.

She became a doctor and a mother, and religion played a central role throughout her life.

Koch completed her medical residency at the Washington University in St. Louis and, after working in several other states, made her way to Alaska.  She fell in love with the land and Barry Koch, a physical education teacher at Clark Middle School and a commercial fisherman.  The two were married in 1983.

Koch worked at the Alaska Native Medical Center and North Care Medical Centers.  For 10 years, she had a family practice with Dr. Mary Ann Foland at Primary Care Associates.

"She had an impish grin," Foland said.  "Every day, you'd walk into the office and she had a new joke."

Two years ago, she left private practice and went to the Discovery Unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center and began to focus on eating disorders. "This became her passion.  To learn why is this the most deadly of all the psychological disorders," said Barry Koch in an interview Saturday at his home.  "And why especially girls are affected by this."

At Providence, Koch had already developed a program to help adults suffering from bulimia and anorexia and she was about to open a clinic that specialized in eating disorders.

She spent a lot of time with her patients, believing that she couldn't help them unless she got to know them, her husband said.

"It wasn't just a 15-minute office call.  She wasn't just a physician to most of her patients.  She was a friend to them," he said. "She had the gift to be a good doctor.  What I remember most was her ability to interact with the whole person."

Almost every summer for the past 15 years, Mari Koch and her family took time off to fish commercially at Kalgin Island in Cook Inlet.  The couple loved the place so much they named their son after the island.  This year, they were going to forgo the fishing for a big family-reunion Outside.

"The most important thing to her were her kids," said Foland, the doctor who practiced with Koch.  "She was just relearning how to play the piano.  She was taking lessons with her daughter.  (The family was) always doing things together."

As Koch spoke about his wife Saturday, prints from his wife's favorite artist, Beverly Dolittle, hung on the living room walls.  More than a half-dozen friends and family members had come to offer support.  Several other family members will arrive from the Lower 48 late tonight.

"We'll put some of her ashes with her dad's grave in Ethete, Wyo.  She wanted that," he said.  "She always wanted to be with him again.  He was the mentor of all her jokes."