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Those Were the Days

Randy Wyrick The Vail Daily

Ask a bunch of local doctors about starting the hospital and youget stories.

Like the time a guy shot himself in the heart with a nail gun.Or when a father accidentally shot his son in the head. (We'll giveaway the ending: The kid was fine.) Or trips to Denver in anambulance loaded with patients on the way down and loaded with BigMacs on the way back.

"A lot of the medical community has been around for decades.That's been a huge asset for the community" said Dr. JonFeeney.

Dr. Kent Petrie has delivered more than 2000 babies.

Dr. Larry Brooks was a family doc who helped establish emergencymedicine in Eagle County. Jack Eck was a flight surgeon in Vietnam- a fancy term for the guy who rode in helicopters and tried tokeep wounded soldiers alive.

"I promised myself that if I survived that I was going to a skiarea for a winter" Eck said. "If I wake up and I'm not in Phu Bai(Vietnam) that's a good day."

Like many of us he never left.

And like few of us Dr. Tom Steinberg was here before any ofthem.

"Most people don't think about it. They see what we have now andthink it's always been that way. I have the long-term view" saidSteinberg Vail's first full-time doctor.

Lives in progress a thing to behold.

BEFORE VAIL WAS VAIL John Murchison used to skiin Aspen with Dr. Bob Oden (O-Dane for non-Scandinavians) the onlyorthopaedic surgeon between Denver and Salt Lake City.

Murchison asked Oden what he'd charge to fix his son's leg if hebroke it. "Five days income" Oden said.

Fast forward one year and Murchison was one of Vail's originalinvestors. He was skiing Vail and of course broke his leg. Heheaded to Aspen where Oden fixed it.

"What do I owe you?" Murchison asked.

Oden had been driving back and forth from Vail to Aspen seeingpatients in both places. The drive and the hours were brutal andhe'd had enough.

"I won't charge you a dime if you get a doctor in Vail" he toldMurchison.

So Murchison and Vail founder Pete Seibert bought "help wanted"ads in some medical journals and had 135 applications. Steinbergwas among them.

The Steinbergs checked out Vail and spent an hour talking toSeibert who explained that wealthy Mexicans wouldn't bring theirfamilies to Vail if there were no doctor.

Tom had survived the infantry in World War II. After the war heworked as a doctor for the Ford Motor company taking care of 3000people in an assembly plant.

"I'd seen my fair share of trauma" Steinberg said.

They offered him $18000 to come to Vail and he showed up inNovember 1965. Up to then the ski company had been bringing indoctors for three months during the winter setting up shop in theRed Lion.

Murchison put up $10000 to buy equipment and lease space acrossthe street from what is now the Christiania Lodge. The ski patrolcould put their toboggans on a wheeled cart and roll them right upto the door. Those same doors weren't wide enough for awheelchair.

A lift ticket and an office call cost locals the same $5.Tourists also got $5 lift tickets but they had to pay a premiumfor an office visit-  $10 Steinberg said. It went that wayfor two or three years and then Medicare got involved and madethem charge everyone the same.

AFTER A YEAR an emergency room was built on landthe ski company owned. And here's something you might not know. Ifthe Vail Valley Medical Center is ever sold the ski company getsthe land back.

"Their lawyers were smart" Steinberg said.

They opened that emergency room with enough space for apharmacist and an office for Eagle County's public healthdepartment to put a nurse there. They also added a second floor sothey could move Vail Mountain School out of the Vail fire stationwhere it had landed after beginning in Pete Seibert's house.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING and a new doctor's residencytypically starts in the summer leaving the docs with a few monthsto fill during the winter. Steinberg and the ski company broughtsome of them here on their "between time."

"We were very fortunate to get some excellent doctors"Steinberg said.

Vietnam veterans were high on the list. Eck showed up that way.Dr. John Garrett came in 1972 when he was waiting for hisresidency. Dr. Bert Zarins spent some time in Vail. He now headsthe sports medicine department at Massachusetts General. The listgoes on and on.

That first year the ski company sold less than 100000 lifttickets. That number matters because it was never clear that thenew ski area would make it and because Steinberg averaged abouteight injuries for every 1000 skiers - mostly lacerations. Peoplestill strapped their skis to their ankles with a leather thong andwhen they'd fall the ski would flail around until it hit something- usually them. Stitches ensued.

Technology has reduced the current ticket-to-trauma ratiotenfold to less than-one for every 1000 skiers.

"Bert and I set 10 tibia/fibula fractures in one day. The lastyears I was working you'd get one every three or four weeks"Steinberg said.

THE FOREST SERVICE sold the clinic a Chevystation wagon for $1800. They put a red light on it added somemedical gear and they had themselves an ambulance.

That ambulance was handy for getting patients to Denverhospitals since Vail didn't have any beds until 1979 or so. It wasmore than three hours over mountain passes before I-70 with thedoctor kneeling in the back the entire way.

"We'd patch 'em and dispatch 'em" Steinberg said.

When that Chevy station wagon/ambulance went to Denver itusually made two stops on the way back Lane's Bar on 8th Street inDenver and McDonald's. A station wagon will hold an enormous numberof Big Macs.

THEY DIDN'T HAVE surgeons or an operating roomand the anesthetic of choice often came from a Scotch bottle.

No cell phones no pagers. If someone needed a doctor thechances were pretty good they'd find one in Donovan's CopperBar.

Finally Gordon Brittan and several others started raisingmoney. They added some beds and an operating room followed. In1981 Dr. John Gottlieb started doing orthopaedic surgery fulltime.

"Life was a lot different in those days. Everything revolvedaround how quickly you can get the injured people to Denver"Feeney said.

LIKE THIS GUY working construction in Lionsheadwho was using one of those newfangled nail guns. It misfired and anail bounced back off a concrete wall and stuck him right in theheart.

Not quite as through-and-through as Cupid's arrow but enough tokill an unlucky man. But luck and Drs. Steinberg and Eck were withthe guy that day.

"You ever see anything like this?" Steinberg asked Eck.

"Not exactly" Eck said.

Your heart has this sac around it and the man's blood wasleaking into his. The sac fills puts pressure on your heart and itcan't beat so you die.

But not this guy. Not this day.

They ran a long needle up through his diaphragm into that sacand started draining blood. Then they did it again. Then theyloaded him into their makeshift ambulance and Eck rode with him toDenver kneeling in the back and draining blood from around hisheart.

The man lived but not for long.

A car crash killed him on Loveland Pass three weeks later.

"When your number is up it's up" Steinberg said still shakinghis head about it all these years later.

Sometimes they built their own equipment. Like the young boybrought in one night because he couldn't breathe. They went to thearea's only coin laundry in Minturn woke up the owner and grabbeda bunch of plastic clothes bags. They cobbled together a makeshiftoxygen tent found a humidifier and put it under there with theboy. The moisture brought him around and he slept like the baby hewas.

Then there was the hysterical father who accidentally shot hisson in the head. The dad rushed him to Vail's brand new emergencyroom where Steinberg got him stabilized loaded him into the Chevyand they all rode to Denver Steinberg kneeling in the back withthe boy.

When they got to Denver there was no one at the hospital and thedoor was locked.

"I pounded and pounded on the door until someone finallyresponded" Steinberg said.

The boy turned out fine.

Vail had no mental health doctors in those early days nobody tohelp with alcohol problems so Steinberg handled it.

"There wasn't much to do back then but drink and we all dranktoo much" Steinberg said.

A prominent Midwestern businessman drank his business intobankruptcy lost his family - lost everything. Steinberg agreed tohelp him at no charge but only if the man started AlcoholicsAnonymous in Vail.

"That was a major step forward" Steinberg said.

Small town doctors see everything including the occasionalanimal. Rob Garton had this beagle and brought it to Eck after ithad gotten its worm shot earlier in the day. The dog was sufferingand no one could figure out why.

Eck called a veterinarian who worked on horses and explainedthat they only had human drugs. The vet said they could give thedog one of two drugs. One would cure it one would kill it. Goodluck the vet said.

They made their choice and Eck did some math to figure out adog-sized dosage. Turns out they chose correctly.

"I gave it a shot in the butt and it immediately perked up" Ecksaid.

Or the time a couple of out-of-towners brought in a bird. They'dbeen strolling along the Gore Creek when they spotted a birdhanging upside down from a tree branch. Turns out a fisherman hadleft a fly tangled in the tree and the bird had it stuck in itsbeak. Eck handled it the same way you would taking it out of ahuman hand or ear or nose or any of the other places a fish hookcan get stuck.

He clipped off the barb pulled it out and the bird hit thesky.

The stories go on and on as does their pride at what theyhelped build.

"We have a lot of good docs" Steinberg said. "We are blessed.The board has been behind everything. If we needed something andcould justify it they'd see that we got it.

"We've come so far so quickly.It's good for the younger docs tounderstand what came before to make this hospital what it is. Itmakes me feel good to know that those roots have grown intothis."