This article first appeared in the Vail Daily on December 30, 2020.
Jack Eck isn’t going anywhere, but Vail’s third full-time doctor — Tom Steinberg and Bill Holm were the first and second — is retiring from nearly 50 years of service in the community.
Eck, 78, first came to Vail in 1971, fresh out of the U.S. Army, where he’d been a flight surgeon in both Vietnam and, later, in New Jersey.
A small-town guy from Pennsylvania, Eck was ready for something more peaceful than the jungles of that war-torn Asian country. Thanks to some friends, he found his landing spot in Vail in 1971.
He came to ski with friends in January of that year. At Donovan’s Copper Bar one night, Eck asked if there were any openings in the still-fledgling ski town. There wasn’t at the time, but Eck left his contact information with Steinberg and Holm. A few months later, a position opened up.
A few days after leaving New Jersey, Eck pulled into Vail on Oct. 15, 1971.
He was home, and quickly went to work as a ski-town doctor. He also quickly went to work making life better for the valley’s residents and visitors.
Early on, Eck was on Vail Mountain, helping train ski patrol members in emergency medicine.
“Paramedics weren’t invented yet,” Eck said. So he did early-morning classes with ski patrollers, teaching about chest compression for those who had passed out on the mountain.
The patrol was made up of bright people, Eck said. Patrollers decided they needed to learn more, and night classes followed. All were well-attended.
As Eck was finishing his residency at Denver General Hospital — now Denver Health — he managed to convince the bosses there to let in ski patrollers as observers.
More skilled patrollers is just part of the growing medical sophistication Eck has seen over the years. Over the years, people have gone from “Vail screwed that up” to “Wow; Vail has that?”
Moving the then-Steadman Hawkins orthopedic practice was part of that growth. So was the creation of the Shaw Cancer Center.
Eck noted that the Vail area — and much of the Rockies — has relatively high incidences of cancer despite a healthy, active population.
Eck was talking one day to his friend and patient Harold Shaw. Shaw was on the board of what was then Vail Valley Medical Center. Although he was spending less time in the valley — he was having difficulty tolerating the altitude — Shaw and Eck talked about what he could do for the community.
Those conversations led to Eck’s belief the valley needed a cancer treatment center.
Shaw asked what that might cost. Eck swallowed hard and said “between $18 and $19 million.”
Not long after, Shaw, with the assent of his wife, Mary Lou, wrote the check. The Shaw Cancer Center opened, debt-free, in July of 2001.
The center quickly attracted both new professionals to the valley and patients from around the region. Coming from as far away as Steamboat Springs, a number of patients needed a place to stay, particularly after exhausting chemotherapy treatments.
That led to the creation of a “caring house” for those patients. Thanks to a fund-raising drive by the Shaw Outreach Team, as well as either low prices or outright donations of materials and labor by virtually contractor involved with the project.
Those who stay at the caring house, steps away from the treatment center, pay what they can when they visit. Sometimes, patients can’t pay anything. It doesn’t matter.
Just before the caring house opened in 2007, Shaw Outreach Team member Suzy Davis held a reception for those involved in the project.
Eck found himself holding a banner during the evening. Someone asked if he’d read the banner. He looked, and discovered that the caring house would forever be known as “Jack’s Place.”
“I was floored,” Eck said.
As he’s leaving his current role as an ambassador for Vail Health, Eck said he and Kathleen aren’t going anywhere.
Kathleen was recently named chairperson of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, so there’s a lot to do in that project.
“We still have the opportunity to do more,” Eck said. “It’s helpful to both of us — it helps our mental health. And it’s neat to be part of something people care about.”