Before his days in medicine, Henning Gerke, MD, clinical professor in Gastroenterology and Hepatology, would spend hours digging around in the garden, making compost, and planting potatoes. As a young man, he enjoyed gardening and was fascinated by the botanical life cycle. Gerke’s interest in biology was always present, but he was more interested in the flora rather than the fauna as an adolescent. When looking at potential careers, he even contemplated becoming a farmer.
However, Gerke’s father was an internist with a subspecialty in cardiology, so Gerke witnessed first-hand the ways in which medicine combined both science and service. Intrigued by the complexity of the human body and the possibility of helping others, Gerke took on the challenge.
Finding his Handwerk
Gerke was born and raised in western Germany in a suburban town called Brackwede by Bielefeld. In his teenage years, his family moved to Buxtehude, another suburban town near Hamburg. He grew up surrounded by nature reserves and friendly downtown areas with plenty of bike trails. When he was 17 years old, he spent a year in Melbourne, Australia, as an exchange student, and he loved the experience of living in a foreign country. For the first half of his medical education, he attended the University of Freiberg in Breisgau, which neighbors the beautiful Black Forest.
“The medical training, the bonding with the other students, the life, and that beautiful place is something that that I’m still very, very fond of,” Gerke said.
In Germany, medical students swap places with their peers at other institutions, so students can gain exposure to more than one institution. To finish off his medical education, Gerke transferred to Hamburg University. In contrast to American medical school, German medical school and residency are less structured and take a “learn as you go” approach. Interns are often placed in wards and begin caring for patients with little supervision, so Gerke taught himself ultrasound and endoscopy skills. This learning style was especially constructive during his final year, when he worked abroad in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Johannesburg hospital gave him the opportunity to help a broad patient population, and he gained a lot of hands-on experience in minor surgical procedures that final year.
Because of his interest in the metabolic process, Gerke completed an Internal Medicine residency at the University of Bonn and a Gastroenterology-Hepatology fellowship at the University of Mainz. At first, Gerke wanted to avoid procedural medicine and was put off by the mechanical aspects of surgery. However, he soon realized procedures like endoscopy and ERCPs could be the best solution for gastrointestinal dysfunction. Handwerk hat goldenen Boden (“a trade in hand finds gold in every land”), Gerke’s father had often said, and Gerke decided procedures could be his Handwerk.
“With a procedure, you get immediate positive feedback for what you’re doing,” Gerke said. “I also realized it’s very rewarding if you have a specific procedural skill that you can use to help people by avoiding more invasive surgery.”
Change of plans
After living in Germany for the entirety of his life besides those two stints abroad, Gerke moved to Durham, North Carolina, to attend Duke University and completed an ERCP and Endoscopic Ultrasound fellowship. During the short trip he took to Durham for his recruitment interview, Gerke felt as if he was moving to a different planet. Gerke was used to pedestrian-oriented Buxtehude and the beautiful forestry of Freiburg. Durham was nothing like that.
“I was in some small hotel and tried to cross the street to go to Texas Roadhouse, and people look at you funny that you’re on the road without a car,” Gerke said. “It felt like this huge, very famous educational institution was in the middle of nowhere.”
Gerke planned to return to Germany once he finished his post-fellowship at Duke. But then he met Alicia Gerke, MD, now-associate professor in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine. The two married and began to look for work together in the United States.
The Gerkes applied to positions across the nation, and the University of Iowa was one of the first to respond to them both. Henning received a call from then-Gastroenterology Division Director Joel Weinstock, MD. Weinstock told Gerke that Iowa reminded him of Northern Europe and that Iowa City specifically had many European characteristics.
“He compared it to the rolling hills in Denmark, and I didn’t really buy into that at the time,” Gerke said. “But now I think he wasn’t that far off. Iowa City has a very European set up with the pedestrian mall and a lot of opportunities to move around on bike and foot.”
Naturally easy life in Iowa City
The Gerkes accepted Iowa’s dual offers and have called Iowa City home ever since. Gerke became the main point person for endoscopic ultrasound and has been working to advance the program since joining faculty in 2004. In addition to endoscopic ultrasound, Gerke also offers services in other aspects of interventional endoscopy for esophageal disorders, gastrointestinal cancer, and more.
Steven Polyak, MD, clinical associate professor in Gastroenterology and Hepatology, has known Gerke for eleven years.
“He is a compassionate and caring clinician always willing to help colleagues and patients with his expertise,” Polyak said. “Outside of work, Henning is a competitive cyclist and ‘orchardist.’ He has a terrific family and witty personality. You cannot help but love hanging out with Henning.”
Outside of their lives at the hospital, the Gerkes and their four children enjoy many of the amenities Iowa City life has to offer. The family especially enjoys the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center (CRWC) and the Field House, where the children have daily swim practices. Alicia and kids also play tennis at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. In a family with two physician-parents, Henning says time management and coordination can be stressful. In a larger city, trying to coordinate driving between the recreation centers and work would be challenging. However, the facilities are all just down the street from the hospital.
“I had a friend and colleague of mine who briefly went to San Antonio, Texas, and I think he got very frustrated with his kids’ activities to have a one-way commute of 45 minutes,” Gerke said. “I think the setup of Iowa City makes it all easier.”
During their free time, the family takes walks around Lake McBride, and when the pandemic began last year, and the recreational centers were closed, the children were able to swim in Lake McBride. Surrounded by a large Iowa City biking community, Gerke also enjoys road biking and finds Iowa’s rolling hills to be the perfect challenge. Occasionally, Gerke’s family wants to go to the theatre or a performance, and Iowa City offers plenty of cultural events.
“Iowa City is also close to Chicago, but we find ourselves rarely going there because we have everything that we need right around the corner,” Gerke said.
When the Gerke family is not swimming or hiking, they work in the garden together. Although he did not become a farmer, Gerke still gardens during his free time and watches as new life grows back on the apple trees each year.
“I would say once you live in Iowa, you realize the enormous quality of life that Iowa City has to offer,” Gerke said.