When Lana Dbeibo, MD, began her fellowship in infectious diseases at Indiana University School of Medicine in 2014, a pandemic seemed like a remote concept.
“In infectious disease, we study how to prepare for it, but it seems theoretical,” said Dbeibo, leader of IU’s COVID-19 vaccination initiative. “It seems like something very far away—something I’ll just memorize for the test, but it’s not going to happen. And then it happens.”
As medical director of infection prevention at IU Health Methodist Hospital, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at IU School of Medicine, and a key member of IU’s Medical Response Team, Dbeibo suddenly found herself called to pre-dawn and post-sunset meetings.
“We were responsible to keep people safe,” Dbeibo said. “Under stress, we all came together.
My phone did not stop ringing for hours and days—weekends and nights. In the early phases of the pandemic, I could email anyone at 4 am, and they would answer me back.”
Dbeibo, 36, is being honored among the Indianapolis Business Journal’s prestigious “Forty Under 40” for her key role in keeping IU and IU Health operating safely during the pandemic. To date, more than 91 percent of the IU community has received a COVID-19 vaccination, and more than 15,000 injections were administered by medical and nursing students trained by Dbeibo’s team.
“From the earliest days, Dr. Dbeibo took an active leadership role in Indiana University’s pandemic response and has gone above and beyond the call to ensure the utmost excellence in the prevention, care, safety and welfare of our campus community,” said Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MHSA, executive vice president for University Clinical Affairs and dean of IU School of Medicine.
Hess was joined by Dennis Murphy, MHA, president and CEO of IU Health, in supporting Dbeibo’s nomination.
“IU Health benefited from Dr. Dbeibo’s expertise and data-drive processes as the COVID-19 pandemic began in Indiana,” Murphy wrote. “Dr. Dbeibo was also a key communicator of changes, recommendations and the science behind them for our health system. She participated in numerous webinars for the system, and reached patients at local, regional and national levels with her media interviews both in print and on television.”
Seeing this confident communicator, many might be surprised to learn Dbeibo had a fear of media interviews prior to the pandemic.
“I was super camera shy,” she said. “When COVID hit, I just had to do it. All I did last year was talk to people—webinars, town halls, media interviews. I learned more about how we communicate, especially when others are in a state of fear and panic. And I learned to face my own fears and become more confident in my abilities.”
In the past, Dbeibo sometimes called on colleague Cole Beeler, MD, to talk with media about infection prevention measures, including the importance of annual flu shots.
“We both took a media relations course a few years before the pandemic, and I remember her not being super-jazzed about it,” said Beeler, who holds a parallel position as medical director of infection prevention at IU Health University Hospital and was named to IBJ’s “Forty Under 40” in 2021. “But I’ve always felt that Lana was more capable than me in answering clearly without unnecessary fluff. She was thrown into the fire with COVID interviews and strongly represented IU School of Medicine and IU Health as being the authority on vaccination.”
Dbeibo said her lack of confidence may have stemmed from the fact she’s not a native English speaker, having grown up in Beirut, Lebanon. She studied medicine at the American University of Beirut, allowing her to participate in the National Resident Matching Program, and came to IU School of Medicine in 2011 as a resident in internal medicine.
Passion for preventing infections
“My family knew I would become a doctor because I always said it and never changed,” Dbeibo said.
The seed was planted the first time she visited a hospital as a child. “I would tell my mom I loved the smell of the hospital because it smelled clean,” Dbeibo recalled of her childish reasoning.
Over time, her appreciation for the important role of physicians grew. The daughter of a chemistry teacher and a pharmacist, Dbeibo loved the sciences.
“One thing about infectious disease is there’s a lot of thinking, and I’ve always been driven to detective stories,” she said. “In infectious disease, you find the answers by looking at a lot of clues, and that’s very intriguing to me.”
She didn’t know which direction her medical career would go when she first came to IU. In their final year of medical school in Beirut, Dbeibo and her partner, Nabil Adra, MD, participated in the “couples match” and came to IU together. They married in their last year of residency. Adra went on to complete a fellowship in oncology and is an assistant professor of clinical medicine and urology at IU School of Medicine.
During the long, crazy days of COVID, Adra was a strong support for Dbeibo but sometimes had to remind her not to neglect her life outside of work. Even before the pandemic hit, Dbeibo tended to throw herself 100-percent into attaining excellence. When she took the position as medical director of infection prevention at IU Health Methodist in 2017—fresh out of her fellowship training—she felt it was a “bold move.”
“It was a position that came with big responsibilities. I was young and did not have a vast experience in infection prevention, but I had great mentors who helped me through,” said Dbeibo. She also voraciously read books on leadership and got a certificate in implementation science.
Dbeibo’s dedication and data-driven decision making soon led to improvements at IU Health Methodist, reducing certain hospital-acquired infections by over 50 percent, Murphy noted.
“She then shared those best practices throughout our IU Health system, and even with partners outside of our system, to ensure all Hoosiers receive the best, safest care,” he said.
In 2019, Dbeibo was asked by the Indiana State Department of Health to be part of the Indiana Sepsis Taskforce. She also serves on a national level as a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) Quality Improvement Committee.
Pragmatic, yet personal, guidance
Charting a plan to vaccinate the entire IU community—about 110,000 students and 21,000 faculty and staff members—was no easy task. Dbeibo was the right person to lead those efforts, said Beeler, who served alongside her on IU’s Medical Response Team’s as director of symptomatic testing.
“I’ve always felt that Lana was very confident and invoked trust when delivering information since she has such a good grasp on the medical literature and a very pragmatic approach to problems,” said Beeler, who has known Dbeibo since their residency and fellowship training at IU. “I think the thing that stands out most to me is her ongoing desire to improve, push her limits and advocate for her patients.”
Dbeibo’s influence and empathy was particularly helpful in addressing vaccine hesitancy among women of child-bearing age.
Her first child was born in May 2020 and was a nursing infant when COVID-19 vaccines became available. Although Dbeibo is “100 percent pro-vaccine” and understands the science behind the mRNA vaccines, she admits she had a moment of initial hesitancy and sought reassurance from a colleague in pediatrics before getting the vaccine. When booster shots were recommended, Dbeibo was pregnant with her second child, born in January 2022.
“Imagine someone with no scientific background—I can understand their hesitancy because I was living in their shoes,” Dbeibo said. “I think sharing my story helps pregnant women and nursing mothers feel I’m not judging. I also had to pause, and that’s OK. I encourage them, ‘Please ask more questions.’”
The fact that Dbeibo had two children during the pandemic while commanding IU’s vaccination initiative amazes her colleagues.
“Preventing infections is actually what vaccines do, so it all comes back full circle to my passion for infection prevention. This is what kept me going despite being tired as a new mom,” she said, adding, “I have a lot of support at home, so I am very fortunate.”
During her recent maternity leave, Dbeibo stayed busy working toward a master’s in public health.
“I feel guilty if I don’t have anything to do,” she said.
For her dedicated efforts during the pandemic, including creating standards for safely reopening elective surgeries at the hospital, Dbeibo was recognized with the IU Health Values award in 2020. Similarly, Hess commends Dbeibo for working closely with the Indiana Department of Health on the rollout of vaccinations for the entire IU community.
“The fact that she served in this capacity for the university while continuing to mentor and train learners, publish papers on her efforts, care for patients and serve as medical director of infection prevention at IU Health Methodist Hospital is truly remarkable,” he said. “Her leadership, dedication and service have been incredibly valuable and impactful both to Indiana University and the state.”
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.