Jack’s Place might sound like a good name for a seedy dive bar, not a luxury lodge for cancer patients and their caregivers. But the 10,000-square-foot facility on the campus of Shaw Cancer Center near Berry Creek in Edwards (with a yoga studio and 12 luxuriously appointed guest rooms, available for a donation of $25 a night) was named in honor of Dr. Jack Eck, a physician and Vail pioneer who knows a thing or two about watering holes. “You can call me Jack—I get more beers that way when I go to the ski bars,” he quips. This year, Eck will be retiring after nearly 50 years of serving the Vail community.
Eck grew up in Pennsylvania and attended medical school at Temple University. Even though he’s spent most of his life developing the Vail Valley Medical Center (now Vail Health) as its executive vice president for Clinical Program Development and Community Outreach, Eck had only been to Vail once in the 1960s prior to serving as a combat medic in Vietnam. “When I ended up on the DMZ,” Eck shares, “I said to myself: if I survive this, I’m going to go back.”
After serving his country, Eck joined the Vail ski patrol in 1971 and applied his skills as a military medic on the slopes. “It wasn’t as traumatic because [injured skiers] didn’t have bullet holes, but they still got badly beat up,” Eck explains. “I started giving [ski patrollers] classes and taught them what paramedics learn today.” He also helped build the town’s fledgling clinic—once housed in an office in the basement of the Red Lion on Bridge Street—into a mountain town hospital that’s as well staffed and equipped as any in the world. In the process, Eck nursed his own invisible wounds that lingered from the war. “For me, [working in Vail] was therapeutic,” Eck says. Like many veterans, Eck struggles with PTSD and, as most survivors admit, he too has only begun discussing his trauma in the past few years. “It’s not easy,” he says.
Eck is cognizant that many Eagle County residents struggle with mental health issues—in 2018, the county logged nearly one attempted suicide every day—and hopes the hospital he helped build can make a difference. (In 2019, Vail Health dedicated $60 million to mental health care in Eagle County; that same year, suicide rates fell by 30 percent.) “The focus on mental health here—we’re going to have to put that on a whole different level. We have the financial privileges here, so we can do beyond up-to-date therapies.” Ask Eck to name the highlights of his career, and you might expect him to mention skiing with Jerry Ford (he was a personal friend), but instead he returns to the therapy and camaraderie he found at the patrol shack.
“I came here feeling devastated,” says Eck, “but I was able to contribute something from what I learned [in Vietnam] by teaching the ski patrol guys. That’s been very gratifying to see.”
After almost a half century of medical service, “now, it’s somebody else’s turn,” says Eck, a Lake Creek resident who plans to spend more time kayaking along the Eagle River and fishing with friends this summer. Come winter, he’ll be frequenting his old haunts on the hill, where it all began.