During the COVID-19 outbreak peaks of 2020, patients sat in the lobby of Fort Loudoun Medical Center in Lenoir City with IVs pumping fluids and nutrients through their veins.
Nurses were checking blood pressure and other vital signs. Doctors assessed patients with ankle sprains or nausea and prescribed pain relief medication or CT scans to better understand their patients’ ailments.
Hospital hallways were lined with beds full of patients with fevers, heart problems or abdominal pain while hospital staff re-gloved, re-dressed and re-masked, adapting to protocols in evolving and performing tasks outside of their job description.
“That place was just a combat zone,” said Dr. Erik Geibig, director of the emergency department at Fort Loudoun Medical Center. “I mean, you just had patients waiting all along.”
As Geibig, 51, led his team through an unprecedented global pandemic, he was also fighting a more personal battle.
On Thanksgiving weekend 2020, he was told he had stage four prostate cancer.
He began receiving aggressive chemotherapy treatments, but the prognosis was not positive.
Through it all, Geibig worked his usual hospital shifts and treated patients despite his own weakened immune system. He attended his daughter’s soccer games and traveled to see his son play hockey in North Carolina. He remained an inspiration and impetus to his staff at Fort Loudoun.
He stood up for his hospital, his community and his family amid a grim personal health crisis with “honor and bravery,” said Travis Estes, director of Loudon County Emergency Medical Services.
That’s what makes Geibig one of Knox.biz’s 2022 Healthcare Heroes for Pandemic and Immunization Leadership.
More than an oath
It was frightening for Geibig to see his hospital in crisis, especially during the surges caused by the delta and omicron variants. But with outpatient services closed and other nearby hospitals in the same overwhelmed situation, the Fort Loudoun team continued to care for the community.
With reduced hospital staff, depleted resources and fear of the virus, Geibig set an example for his team. He made sure they provided quality care to their patients.
When his boss told him to go home after Geibig’s chemo treatments, “I’m not going home,” he recalls saying.
“It was really important, I thought, in the pandemic to provide some stability,” Geibig said. “And if I’m sick and I’m going through this and I’m here, my staff kind of took inspiration from that.”
“I think that’s what drove us all [his] heart,” April Ray, medical staff coordinator, told Knox News. “He is such a passionate man for his patients and his family.
“He is truly a hero. I cannot say enough about him and what he has done for our community. I mean, above and beyond.
EMS director Estes – who received a Health Care Heroes award in 2016 – was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015 and has been a pillar of support for Geibig personally and professionally. Estes said he admired Geibig’s character, his faith and how he was able to overcome those challenges.
“I’m very honored and thrilled to call him a friend, to have him as my medical director,” he said. “And as a medical professional, he is the embodiment of what you expect of someone during this time and under these circumstances.
A fight to heal the community
Respect and admiration for Geibig runs deep in Fort Loudoun. Caring for the community has always been her guiding light during the pandemic’s darkest times, Geibig said.
At first, he fought for Fort Loudoun and surrounding hospitals to have access to monoclonal antibodies, which were lab-made antibodies used to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.
He sits on the board of Covenant Health Systems and has had regular conversations with Covenant President Jim Vandersteeg and Covenant Vice President of Operations Mike Belbeck about how to improve the pandemic response.
“I had a small system-level voice to try to impact all of East Tennessee,” Geibig said. System…everything has to be healthy.”
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Geibig also helped the community learn about vaccines. When politicization and misinformation fueled vaccine reluctance in the region, he had difficult conversations with patients about the importance of vaccination.
Seeing patients of all ages die of COVID had affected him deeply, but losing a younger patient had particularly affected him.
“It was just paralyzing. I just sat there, and just prayed and cried, and said, ‘Man, I failed,'” Geibig said.
“I took an oath, and my job is to help people, to heal people. I held the guy’s hand, I held his wife’s hand, and I swore to do whatever we could, and in the end, it didn’t help.
The lessons of COVID and cancer
Geibig felt supported through it all. Imagine several traveling atoms coming together to form a close bond. This is how Fort Loudoun personnel have rallied around Geibig for the past two years.
Geibig said Fort Loudoun personnel are his hero. They fought by his side during COVID surges, listened to his needs after cancer treatments, and offered moral support. A colleague even shaved his head as Geibig’s dense hair thinned.
He found strength through his wife Barbara, a registered nurse in Fort Loudoun, and their three children. He learned to value and savor the smallest moments spent with them.
The pandemic and an unexpected cancer diagnosis have led Geibig to face unfathomable challenges with superhero tenacity. But the trip gave her a new perspective on life.
“I am who I am, but I think cancer has made me a better doctor; the pandemic has made me a better doctor. The events – and it’s not about me – but they made me a better person,” he said.
“It’s improved a lot of things for me personally, and I’ve tried to impact people around me, whether it’s medical staff, whether it’s EMS, whether it’s my own home,” he said. said Geibig. “I just try to be better.”