Those Were the Days
Ask a bunch of local doctors about starting the hospital and you get 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 give away the ending: The kid was fine.) Or trips to Denver in an ambulance loaded with patients on the way down, and loaded with Big Macs 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. Jon Feeney.
Dr. Kent Petrie has delivered more than 2,000 babies.
Dr. Larry Brooks was a family doc who helped establish emergency medicine in Eagle County. Jack Eck was a flight surgeon in Vietnam - a fancy term for the guy who rode in helicopters and tried to keep wounded soldiers alive.
"I promised myself that if I survived that, I was going to a ski area 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 of them.
"Most people don't think about it. They see what we have now and think it's always been that way. I have the long-term view," said Steinberg, Vail's first full-time doctor.
Lives in progress, a thing to behold.
BEFORE VAIL WAS VAIL, John Murchison used to ski in Aspen with Dr. Bob Oden (O-Dane for non-Scandinavians), the only orthopaedic surgeon between Denver and Salt Lake City.
Murchison asked Oden what he'd charge to fix his son's leg if he broke it. "Five days income," Oden said.
Fast forward one year and Murchison was one of Vail's original investors. He was skiing Vail and, of course, broke his leg. He headed to Aspen where Oden fixed it.
"What do I owe you?" Murchison asked.
Oden had been driving back and forth from Vail to Aspen, seeing patients in both places. The drive and the hours were brutal and he'd had enough.
"I won't charge you a dime if you get a doctor in Vail," he told Murchison.
So, Murchison and Vail founder Pete Seibert bought "help wanted" ads in some medical journals and had 135 applications. Steinberg was among them.
The Steinbergs checked out Vail and spent an hour talking to Seibert, who explained that wealthy Mexicans wouldn't bring their families to Vail if there were no doctor.
Tom had survived the infantry in World War II. After the war, he worked as a doctor for the Ford Motor company taking care of 3,000 people in an assembly plant.
"I'd seen my fair share of trauma," Steinberg said.
They offered him $18,000 to come to Vail and he showed up in November 1965. Up to then, the ski company had been bringing in doctors for three months during the winter, setting up shop in the Red Lion.
Murchison put up $10,000 to buy equipment and lease space across the street from what is now the Christiania Lodge. The ski patrol could put their toboggans on a wheeled cart and roll them right up to the door. Those same doors weren't wide enough for a wheelchair.
A lift ticket and an office call cost locals the same, $5.
Tourists also got $5 lift tickets, but they had to pay a premium
for an office visit- $10, Steinberg said. It went that way
for two or three years, and then Medicare got involved and made
them charge everyone the same.
AFTER A YEAR, an emergency room was built on land the ski company owned. And here's something you might not know. If the Vail Valley Medical Center is ever sold, the ski company gets the land back.
"Their lawyers were smart," Steinberg said.
They opened that emergency room with enough space for a
pharmacist and an office for Eagle County's public health
department to put a nurse there. They also added a second floor so
they could move Vail Mountain School out of the Vail fire station,
where it had landed after beginning in Pete Seibert's house.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING and a new doctor's residency typically starts in the summer, leaving the docs with a few months to fill during the winter. Steinberg and the ski company brought some 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 his residency. Dr. Bert Zarins spent some time in Vail. He now heads the sports medicine department at Massachusetts General. The list goes on and on.
That first year the ski company sold less than 100,000 lift tickets. That number matters because it was never clear that the new ski area would make it, and because Steinberg averaged about eight injuries for every 1,000 skiers - mostly lacerations. People still strapped their skis to their ankles with a leather thong, and when they'd fall, the ski would flail around until it hit something - usually them. Stitches ensued.
Technology has reduced the current ticket-to-trauma ratio tenfold to less than-one for every 1,000 skiers.
"Bert and I set 10 tibia/fibula fractures in one day. The last years I was working, you'd get one every three or four weeks," Steinberg said.
THE FOREST SERVICE sold the clinic a Chevy station wagon for $1,800. They put a red light on it, added some medical gear and they had themselves an ambulance.
That ambulance was handy for getting patients to Denver hospitals, since Vail didn't have any beds until 1979 or so. It was more than three hours over mountain passes before I-70, with the doctor 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, it
usually made two stops on the way back, Lane's Bar on 8th Street in
Denver and McDonald's. A station wagon will hold an enormous number
of Big Macs.
THEY DIDN'T HAVE surgeons or an operating room, and the anesthetic of choice often came from a Scotch bottle.
No cell phones, no pagers. If someone needed a doctor, the chances were pretty good they'd find one in Donovan's Copper Bar.
Finally, Gordon Brittan and several others started raising money. They added some beds and an operating room followed. In 1981, Dr. John Gottlieb started doing orthopaedic surgery full time.
"Life was a lot different in those days. Everything revolved
around how quickly you can get the injured people to Denver,"
LIKE THIS GUY working construction in Lionshead who was using one of those newfangled nail guns. It misfired and a nail bounced back off a concrete wall and stuck him right in the heart.
Not quite as through-and-through as Cupid's arrow, but enough to kill an unlucky man. But luck and Drs. Steinberg and Eck were with the 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 was leaking into his. The sac fills, puts pressure on your heart and it can't beat, so you die.
But not this guy. Not this day.
They ran a long needle up through his diaphragm, into that sac and started draining blood. Then they did it again. Then they loaded him into their makeshift ambulance and Eck rode with him to Denver, kneeling in the back and draining blood from around his heart.
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 shaking his head about it all these years later.
Sometimes they built their own equipment. Like the young boy brought in one night because he couldn't breathe. They went to the area's only coin laundry, in Minturn, woke up the owner and grabbed a bunch of plastic clothes bags. They cobbled together a makeshift oxygen tent, found a humidifier and put it under there with the boy. The moisture brought him around and he slept like the baby he was.
Then there was the hysterical father who accidentally shot his son in the head. The dad rushed him to Vail's brand new emergency room where Steinberg got him stabilized, loaded him into the Chevy and they all rode to Denver, Steinberg kneeling in the back with the boy.
When they got to Denver there was no one at the hospital and the door was locked.
"I pounded and pounded on the door until someone finally responded," Steinberg said.
The boy turned out fine.
Vail had no mental health doctors in those early days, nobody to help with alcohol problems, so Steinberg handled it.
"There wasn't much to do back then but drink and we all drank too much," Steinberg said.
A prominent Midwestern businessman drank his business into bankruptcy, lost his family - lost everything. Steinberg agreed to help him at no charge, but only if the man started Alcoholics Anonymous in Vail.
"That was a major step forward," Steinberg said.
Small town doctors see everything, including the occasional animal. Rob Garton had this beagle and brought it to Eck after it had gotten its worm shot earlier in the day. The dog was suffering and no one could figure out why.
Eck called a veterinarian who worked on horses and explained that they only had human drugs. The vet said they could give the dog one of two drugs. One would cure it, one would kill it. Good luck, the vet said.
They made their choice, and Eck did some math to figure out a dog-sized dosage. Turns out they chose correctly.
"I gave it a shot in the butt and it immediately perked up," Eck said.
Or the time a couple of out-of-towners brought in a bird. They'd been strolling along the Gore Creek when they spotted a bird hanging upside down from a tree branch. Turns out a fisherman had left a fly tangled in the tree and the bird had it stuck in its beak. Eck handled it the same way you would taking it out of a human hand, or ear, or nose or any of the other places a fish hook can get stuck.
He clipped off the barb, pulled it out and the bird hit the sky.
The stories go on and on, as does their pride at what they helped build.
"We have a lot of good docs," Steinberg said. "We are blessed. The board has been behind everything. If we needed something and could justify it, they'd see that we got it.
"We've come so far, so quickly.It's good for the younger docs to understand what came before to make this hospital what it is. It makes me feel good to know that those roots have grown into this."