Tennessee doctor battles COVID-19 while facing cancer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — During the peak of 2020 of COVID-19, patients sat in the lobby of Fort Loudoun Medical Center in Lenoir City with IVs pumping fluids and nutrients into their veins.

Nurses checked blood pressure and other vital signs. Doctors would examine patients with sprained ankles or nausea and order pain-relieving drugs or CT scans to better understand their patients’ ailments.

Hospital corridors were lined with beds full of patients with fevers, heart problems, or abdominal pains, while hospital staff donned new gloves, new gowns, new masks, adapted to ever-changing protocols, and performed tasks outside of their job description.

“This place was just a combat zone,” said Dr. Erik Geibig, director of the emergency room at Fort Loudoun Medical Center. “I mean, you just had patients lined up all the way.”

While Geibig, 51, led his team through an unprecedented global pandemic, he also fought 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 good.

Throughout it all, Geibig worked his regular hospital shifts and treated patients despite his own compromised immune system. He attended his daughter’s soccer games and traveled to watch his son play hockey in North Carolina. He remained a source of inspiration and drive for his staff at Fort Loudoun.

He stood up for his hospital, community and family with “honor and bravery” amid a bleak personal health crisis, said Loudon County EMS director Travis Estes.

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It was frightening for Geibig to see his hospital going through a crisis, especially during surges caused by Delta and Omicron variants. But with outpatient services closing and other nearby hospitals in the same overwhelmed situation, the Fort Loudoun team continued to treat the community.

With reduced hospital staff, depleted resources and fear of the virus, Geibig set an example for his team. He made sure they were providing quality care to their patients.

When his boss told him to go home after Geibig’s chemo treatments, he said, “I’m not going home,” he recalls.

“I found it really important to ensure a certain stability in the pandemic,” said Geibig. “And when I’m sick and I’m going through that and I’m here, my staff sort of tapped into that.”

“I think that’s what got us all heart-pounding,” April Ray, medical staff coordinator, told Knox News. “He is such a passionate man for his patients and his family.

“He really is a hero. I can’t say enough about him and what he has done for our community. I mean beyond that.”

EMS Director Estes was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015 and has been a pillar of support for Geibig personally and professionally. Estes said he admires Geibig’s character, his faith and how he was able to overcome these challenges.

“I am very honored and pleased to call him a friend, to have him as our medical director,” he said. “And as a healthcare professional, he is the epitome of what you would expect someone to do during this time and in these circumstances.”

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Respect and admiration for Geibig runs deep in Fort Loudoun. Concern for the community has always been his guiding principle in the darker moments of the pandemic, Geibig said.

Early on, he fought to ensure Fort Loudoun and surrounding hospitals had access to monoclonal antibodies, which were lab-made antibodies used to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

He serves on the Covenant Health Systems Board of Directors and has held regular meetings with Covenant President Jim Vandersteeg and Covenant Vice President of Operations Mike Belbeck on how to improve the pandemic response.

“I had a little system-level voice to try and influence all of East Tennessee,” Geibig said. “I have the most influence over my hospital, but we’ve tried to send the lessons we’ve all learned to the entire Covenant Health system… it all has to be sane.”

Geibig also helped educate the community about vaccines. As politicization and misinformation fueled vaccine hesitancy in the region, he engaged in difficult conversations with patients about the importance of vaccination.

Watching patients of all ages die from COVID had affected him deeply, but the loss of a younger patient affected him particularly.

“It was just crippling. I just sat there and just prayed and cried and said, ‘Man, I failed,'” Geibig said.

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“I took an oath and my job is to help people heal people. I held the guy’s hand, held his wife’s hand and I swore to do whatever we can and in the end it didn’t help.”

Geibig felt supported in this. Imagine multiple roving atoms pulling together to form a tight bond. For example, Fort Loudoun employees have rallied around Geibig over the past two years.

Geibig said the Fort Loudoun staff were his heroes. They have fought by his side during flare-ups of COVID, listened to his needs after cancer treatments, and offered moral support. A colleague even shaved his head when Geibig’s thick hair thinned.

He found strength through his wife, Barbara, a nurse at Fort Loudoun, and their three children. He learned to appreciate and enjoy the smallest moments of time with them.

The pandemic and an unexpected cancer diagnosis drove Geibig to take on incredible challenges with superheroic tenacity. But the trip has given him a new perspective on life.

“I am who I am, but I think the cancer thing 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 improved a lot of things for me personally, and I tried to influence people around me, be it medical staff, be it emergency workers, be it my own home,” Geibig said. “I’m just trying to get better.”

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