By DEVARRICK TURNER, Knoxville News Sentinel
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — During the peak COVID-19 surges of 2020, 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 evaluated patients with sprained ankles or nausea, and ordered medicines to alleviate pain or CAT scans to better understand their patients’ ailments.
The hospital’s hallways were lined with beds filled with patients experiencing fever, heart issues, or abdominal pain while hospital staff re-gloved, re-gowned, and re-masked, adjusting to the ever changing protocols and performing tasks outside their job description.
“This place was just a battle zone,” said Dr. Erik Geibig, the emergency department director at Fort Loudoun Medical Center. “I mean, you just had patients strung out all the way through.”
While Geibig, 51, was leading 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 a positive one.
Through 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 Fort Loudoun staff.
He stepped up for his hospital, community, and family amid a bleak personal health crisis with “honor and valor,” said Travis Estes, Loudon County EMS director.
It was scary for Geibig to see his hospital in crisis, especially during surges caused by delta and omicron variants. But with outpatient services shut down and other nearby hospitals in the same overwhelmed predicament, Fort Loudoun’s team continued to treat the community.
With a reduced hospital staff, depleted resources, and fear of the virus, Geibig set the example for his team. He ensured they were providing quality care to their patients.
When his boss would tell him to go home after Geibig’s chemo treatments, “I’m not going home,” he remembers saying.
“It was really important, I felt, in the pandemic to provide some type of stability,” Geibig said. “And if I’m sick and I’m going through this and I’m here, my staff kind of drew on that.”
“I think that’s what pushed all of us is (his) heart,” medical staff coordinator April Ray told Knox News. “He is such a passionate man for his patients and family.
“He really is a hero. I cannot say enough about him and what he’s done for our community. I mean, above and beyond.”
EMS director Estes received a diagnosis of 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 pleased to call him a friend, to have him as our medical director,” he said. “And as a health care professional, he is the epitome of what you would expect somebody to be during that and under those circumstances.”
The respect and admiration for Geibig runs deep at Fort Loudoun. Caring for the community was always his guiding light during the darker moments of the pandemic, Geibig said.
Early on, he fought for Fort Loudoun and surrounding hospitals to have access to monoclonal antibodies, which were laboratory-made antibodies used to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.
He serves on the Covenant Health Systems board of directors and had regular conversations with Covenant President Jim Vandersteeg and Covenant Vice President of Operations Mike Belbeck about how to improve pandemic response.
“I had a little voice on a system level to try to impact all of East Tennessee,” Geibig said. “I can impact my hospital the greatest, but we tried to take lessons that we all learned and send it to the entire Covenant Health System … it all needs to be healthy.”
Geibig also helped the community get educated about vaccines. When politicization and misinformation fueled vaccine hesitancy in the area, he had difficult conversations with patients about the importance of vaccination.
Watching patients of all ages die from COVID had deeply affected him, but losing a younger patient particularly impacted him.
“It was just paralyzing. I just sat there, and I just prayed and cried, and I said, ‘Man, I failed,’” Geibig said.
“I took an oath, and my job is to help people, to cure people. I held the guy’s hand, held his wife’s hand and I swore to do everything we can, and at the end, it didn’t help.”
Geibig has felt supported through it all. Imagine multiple roaming atoms pulling together to form one tight bond. That’s how the Fort Loudoun staff rallied around Geibig these last two years.
Geibig said the Fort Loudoun staff are his heroes. They soldiered beside him during COVID surges, were attuned to his needs after cancer treatments and offered moral support. One colleague even shaved his head as Geibig’s dense hair thinned.
He found strength through wife Barbara, a registered nurse at Fort Loudoun, and their three children. He learned to value and relish the smallest moments of time with them.
The pandemic and an unexpected cancer diagnosis caused Geibig to face unfathomable challenges with superhero-like tenacity. But the journey has given him a new perspective on life.
“I am who I am, but I think the cancer thing has made me a better physician; the pandemic has made me a better physician. The events — and it’s not about me — but they’ve made me a better person,” he said.
“It’s made a lot of things better for me personally, and I’ve tried to impact people around me, be it medical staff, be it EMS people, be it my own home,” Geibig said. “Just trying to be better.”
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