'It was a long journey': Fla. FF-medic returns to work after beating cancer, COVID-19

Clay Geiger, 31, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and with a weakened immune system, contracted the virus before vaccines were available


Rebecca Lee
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

LAKELAND, Fla. — A Lakeland firefighter and paramedic returned to work on Friday after a 16-month battle with cancer.

Clay Geiger, 31, started as a firefighter in Lakeland in 2014 but has done fire rescue work for 10 years.

Clay Geiger, 31, started as a firefighter in Lakeland in 2014.
Clay Geiger, 31, started as a firefighter in Lakeland in 2014. (Photo/Lakeland FD)

He said he wasn't sure the day would come when he could return but he's excited to get back into a routine, help the community and be with the Lakeland Fire Department again, which he said is his second family.

"It was a long journey," Geiger said. "And I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the continued support of my family and work-family."

Geiger said he feels like his patient care as a paramedic will improve because he learned a lot from being on the other side and looks forward to helping people in need.

Cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters, and research shows firefighters are at higher risk when compared to the general population. In 2019, The Florida Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, Senate Bill 426, granting rights and benefits to firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers, including Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is the type of cancer Geiger was diagnosed with.

"Only about 10 to 12 people in the United States are diagnosed with it a year," Geiger said. "And because it's so rare, they don't have the research — it's just not common enough. So, when they do a study, it's a very limited study, unfortunately."

Geiger was 30 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's called Natural killer/T-cell lymphoma. Geiger said Dr. Donald C. Lanza at the Sinus & Nasal Institute of Florida diagnosed it and referred him to Moffit Cancer Center for treatment over a six-month period.

While going through treatments, Geiger tested positive for COVID-19 around Christmas in December. He said it took him three weeks to recover from the virus.

"I'm just left to think, 'Wow, I really don't have an immune system and I have COVID,'" Geiger said. "That was a very difficult time. I didn't really get to celebrate Christmas last year."

Geiger said both the cancer and treatments significantly weakened his immune system and he contracted the virus before vaccines were available, so his doctors boosted his antibodies.

"At the time, it was an experimental monoclonal antibody infusion," Geiger said. "So that's what I did the next day, which was Christmas eve."

It'll require several years of PET scans and follow-up appointments before Geiger can claim complete remission. Still, he said he wants to use his experience to advocate for cancer patients and firefighters alike.

"I wasn't sure that I'd ever make it back to work," Geiger said. "It mentally and physically takes its toll on you just with everything that's required to go through. With some long-term effects of chemo and radiation that I had, it has been an adjustment."

He had a great support system during his battle with cancer, and he said he feels like the help and support of his girlfriend, family and friends made it easier for him. Geiger said Polk County Fire Rescue union members donated around $4,000 in gift cards and other fire departments in the county made shirts in honor of his fight, which he said he found very special.

"On my family crest, there's a few words in Latin that translate to, 'Courage grows strong at the wound'," Geiger said. "And to me, as difficult as it was, I know that, as I get through this, I will be a stronger person for it."

The fire department is starting Geiger out with light duty now that he's back, and he said and they're spending two weeks to refamiliarize him with the equipment and any changes that were made while he was away.

"We are very excited to have Clay return to work following a very courageous battle with cancer. He has kept a positive attitude and demonstrated tremendous courage and determination throughout his treatment," Fire Chief Doug Riley said in a prepared statement. "His return is a monumental win for the department and the citizens we have the privilege of serving every day."

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(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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