Thomas Geller, M.D., was a military man. He well knows and respects the Marines’ motto, Semper Fi, short for a Latin phrase meaning always faithful.
As a Navy veteran, Geller adopted his own version, “Semper Gumby,” playing off a clay humanoid figure that dates to the 1950s and many remember because of his portrayal by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s.
“Gotta be flexible,” Geller says of his motto.
Geller certainly has been that since joining the medical staff at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2018. Geller didn’t expect to be chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurology, but some staff departures cleared the way. Soon, he found himself taking on greater roles in the hospital’s clinical, educational and research missions.
He also found himself recruiting new clinical experts amid a pandemic that challenged the world in many ways and health care in particular. Still, in the past year, he had recruited four new physicians and had an offer out to a fifth. We asked him about his military background and how he transitioned from the Midwest to the west coast of Florida.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
I had early interest in being a physician. I liked sciences and I liked bioscience, so I was pretty interested in medicine from the get-go.
Why did you choose pediatric neurology?
I liked kids, and I liked the idea of learning what goes on in the nervous system. The immature nervous system is very appealing to me because it's unfixed. It's really wide open, and the field is very wide open. I liked neural the most, partly because I had a professor — Dr. Simon Hornstein — who was just a stellar physical examination kind of guy. He could watch a kid walk and figure out where the pathology is, and I thought that was pretty amazing.
How did that intersect with the Navy?
I was a kid who didn't have to go to Vietnam. My draft number was high. I was lucky for that. And then when I finished college, I wanted to go to medical school, and I was going to need to finance it somehow. So, I went in the Navy to do that. I went into the health professions scholarship program. Once I was in, I liked it. I liked the camaraderie and the sense of teamwork and group. I didn't mind the early morning hours. I'm that kind of guy anyway. I found it suited me pretty well. I served 13 years active duty and seven in the reserves.
You spent 25 years in academic medicine at St. Louis University and Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, becoming a full professor and leading the Child Neurology Residency Program. What brought you to Johns Hopkins All Children’s?
I got remarried, and St. Louis was not the kind of climate she was used to, so we moved south, and I looked at a job here. I wasn't expecting to be the Director of Child Neurology, but they needed somebody senior to take over, so I did.
With your academic background, you have interest in adding some graduate medical programs. Can you talk about that?
We’d like to start a residency in child neurology. When I did it, we called it a fellowship because you did pediatrics first and then you did a fellowship in child neurology. But now it's a five-year program and combines pediatrics and child neurology. My goal is to get that going, as well as an epilepsy fellowship in pediatrics.
You work some at the North Port Outpatient Care location. Can you describe the experience for patients at the outreach centers?
It gives more access to our institution for people for care where they live and procedures, trials and other things on the main campus. There are many advantages from both the practice and a business sense that it's worthwhile for patients. I think they like to be in a setting that's close to home, where they feel comfortable, and they're not caught up in the big campus.
Is there anything people would find surprising about you?
I'm not a bad swimmer. I swim in the Senior Olympics. Not everybody does that.