Person of the Week: Dr. Jack Eck | VailDaily.com
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Person of the Week: Dr. Jack Eck

Staff Reports

The back windows of Dr. Jack Eck’s picturesque log cabin face south, toward the still very much snow-capped New York Mountain, just a hint of brilliant orange and pinks from the setting sun shading the white. As we talk in his living room, a deer wanders through his back yard. Outside we can faintly hear Lake Creek, the bubbling stream that is the namesake of the small valley in Edwards where Eck lives with his wife of eight years, Kathleen.Eck and his sister grew up in the Pocono’s, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Eck went to medical school about 125 miles south of those mountains to Temple University in Philadelphia.He’s been in the Vail Valley for 33 years now, faithfully caring for the sick and afflicted. All of the old-timers know him (as he’s cared for many of them), making house calls to the old ranches, casting sprained ankles, (once modifying a cast to fit a stirrup for Leonard Horn, an old rancher who used to drive cattle through the middle of Eagle up to Brush Creek to graze). He still makes house calls to his cancer patients.Eck has even taken care of a sick dog or two in the past back when a vet was hard to come by. He started the ICU, the cardio-pulmonary unit and got the hospice program started at the Vail Valley Medical Center. Eck was also integral in the creation of the Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards, in their third year of helping cancer patients now.”I kept seeing chemo patients having to go to Denver for treatment,” Eck says. He brought this up to Al Shaw who at the time was considering funding a nursing home. It’s no doubt that Eck’s initial vision sparked the center we have today, though he lists off name after name of people instrumental in taking that foresight to completion.Eck first came to Denver to intern after medical school, and to live as good of a life as possible before being drafted into the War of his generation.”A group of my friends and I wanted to go West and learn how to ski and fish before Vietnam,” Eck says.Eck was a flight surgeon for the 101st airborne division. He was right in the thick of the fighting, out with the combat helicopters.”I still carry that war around with me,” he says. “That personal baggage I had nightmares for years. I remember telling myself, if I ever get out of this, I’m going to go to a ski area and take a break.Eck was reluctant to return to Philadelphia as the race riots were in full progression at the time and the city was too unstable for Eck, who had just witnessed more violence than most do in a lifetime. “I had just been in Vietnam in a guerilla war, I wasn’t prepared to come back and deal with the guerilla wars of the city (Philadelphia). It was hard to come back and have people question why I went. For me, ethically, it was a real personal dilemma. I was drafted I didn’t enlist. I rationalized it by saying someone has to take care of the men, and if I hadn’t gone, I would have had a criminal record and would never have been able to get my license to practice medicine,” Eck says.And practicing medicine is something that is clearly of the utmost importance to Eck, who puts in between 60 and 70 hours of work between Monday and Thursday, taking half of Friday to dictate and catch up on paperwork.”I got out of the army on October 11, 1971 and immediately came back to Colorado. I hung out for a few weeks and then started working towards the end of October.”Eck spent countless days on Vail Mountain, donning the red jacket with the white cross and patrolling the mountain. Back then, Jack remembers, there were no EMT’s or paramedics. The Ski Patrol guys did it all, often assisting in the ER with the patients they brought in, setting bones and backing up traumas.Most of the ski-mountains didn’t have clinics at the bottom of the mountain back then and so anyone needing medical attention had to be ambulanced to Denver or Glenwood. Even Vail didn’t have one in the early days, but by the early ’70s, anyone who got hurt on Vail Mountain was funneled into one place: the Medical Center. Eck and Jim Himmes were integral parts of getting the safety of the mountain to where it is today.”We decided to keep track of all the injuries coming off the mountain. We found that we had a lot of walk-in’s as well as people being brought by ambulance. At the end of the year when we looked at the stats we realized a lot of people were being injured by the lifts.”At that time the training for lift operators was really informal, pretty much just teaching them how to turn the lift on and off, Eck says. Mountain officials realized what a liability that was and were able to get that changed.Eck and others also would put pins into a map of the mountain to keep track of where people were getting hurt.”We realized the pins were clustered together at certain spots, the accidents were not random,” Eck says. “At those spots we’d see that maybe expert trails were mixed up or too close to beginner trails or that maybe a ledge existed in a spot that would surprise people.”From that information officials, like the head of the mountain Joe Macy, started modifying the mountain, clearing out trees where they needed to, keeping never-ever runs away from expert trails, as well as grooming runs, which had just started.Eck is still the medical director for the Ski Patrol, a post he’s held since ’71, though now he helps develop protocols and teaches various classes. He loves to reminisce about the old ski patrol days and asserts that the same fantastic comradery that was present in his days on the hill still exists today.”That’s what makes it fun, to be part of something where people take tremendous pride in what they’re doing,” Eck says.Eck remembers how Avon used to be sparse, unpopulated. He kept his ’47 Stinson Voyager plane housed in the stall port that used to be where the new road is that connects City Market to Super Wal-Mart. That plane, which he still owns today (except it’s at the Eagle Airport now), was another thing that kept Eck going during his years in Vietnam, “I saved up my flight pay and just kept telling myself when it was all over, I’d buy my own plane.”He says only three or four people housed planes at the Eagle Airport back in the beginning. “It used to be that when a jet plane went by we’d go out and look, now if a propeller plane goes by we’re out there looking.”Have a nomination for person of the week? Contact Caramie Schnell at cschnell@vailtrail.com


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