The Mississippi doctor who tried — and ultimately failed — to cure a child with HIV

 

Despite the headlines trumpeting her success, despite the interview requests, the parties thrown by her colleagues, the awards, the international attention proclaiming that she, Hannah Gay, a relatively obscure Mississippi doctor, had cured a child with HIV in a medical first — she was never sure. There were always doubts.

This image released by the University of Mississippi Medical Center shows Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi, Friday, March 1, 2013. A baby born with the AIDS virus appears to have been cured, scientists announced Sunday, March 3, 2013, describing the case of a child from Mississippi who's now 2½ and has been off medication for about a year with no signs of infection. "I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot," said Gay. (AP Photo/ University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jay Ferchaud) Dr. Hannah Gay. ( Jay Ferchaud/University of Mississippi Medical Center via AP)

“I’m still paranoid,” she told the Jackson Free Press in October of last year, five months following the announcement an HIV-infected woman gave birth to an infected child Gay then “cured.” “So I see her every two or three months and draw another viral load and just check to see. We have repeated cultures in the end of May, we repeated cultures yet again, and we have still to see any replication-competent virus.”

That, tragically, changed last week. The girl, now nearly four years old and appearing physically well, has tested positive for the virus, a diagnosis that Gay called  “a punch to the gut.” Though Gay never claimed she tried to cure the child, one could still hope somehow something miraculous happened, even if unintended and unexpected.

“I’m getting credit in a lot of press for ‘discovering’ the cure, or ‘developing’ the cure, and I’m going, ‘Wait!’ I was as surprised as anybody!” she explained to the Jackson Free Press. “I just happened to be standing close by. I obviously was not trying to cure the baby. Cure was the furthest thing from my mind.”

On that hot July day in 2010, when Gay decided to administer an aggressive three-drug regimen to the child — then just 30 hours old — she said she was doing what she’s tried to do her whole life: help. That’s it. Just help.

She knew the mother, who was only diagnosed during labor, had not been treated for the disease, meaning the child was at a very high risk for infection. She said the national guidelines at that time didn’t offer any advice on what to do in that sort of situation. So, in short, Gay improvised. “When this baby was born, knowing that the baby was at higher risk, I started three drugs,” she said.

The virus started to decline, and after 29 days it was undetectable. The baby got treatment until she was 18 months old, but then the mother stopped bringing her in. Upon her return five months later — and to everyone’s surprise — the virus was still undetectable, and soon the case was declared a “functional cure.”

The international reaction to that announcement was immediate and profound. The effect the flood of interview requests had on Gay, who until that moment had led a quiet life of faith, medicine and needlepoint, was overwhelming. Soon Time Magazine named her in its 2013 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. For a woman “more comfortable talking to children than adults,” as her husband described her to Reuters, it was difficult to absorb what had happened.

“She is the most unlikely person in the world to be getting this kind of international attention, really,” her former pastor Jay Richardson explained to Reuters. “You don’t ever hear her talking about herself or trying to promote herself in any way. She’s a quiet, humble person. Extremely intelligent. … Very committed to teaching children the bible.”

That commitment long pre-dated her commitment to medicine. She grew up in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, attending a Southern Baptist church. She recalled the hot summers when she had her first experiences with vaccines. “Even as a baby, there was polio every summer,” she told the Free Press. Her mother told her: “‘They just don’t remember when, every summer in the hot South, when polio started going around. We were all so relieved, climbing over people to get vaccines for our child.'”

She knew early on she wanted to do the same for kids. As a teen, she worked for Girls in Action and Young Women’s Auxiliary, she told the Baptist Press in a lengthy sit-down, and eventually completed her pediatric residency at the University of Mississippi. But it was the mid-1980s. She was young. And the world was big.

So in 1987, she hopped a plane to Ethiopia to teach medical school as civil war continued to roil the country. She would stay for six years, though she never taught a day. “When we arrived in the country, there was an ongoing civil war and before we finished language school they had closed the pediatric wards of the teaching hospital due to the civil war,” Gay told the Baptist Press. “They closed the medical school due to the civil war … But I had an informal clinic for mission employees and their families, basically on my front porch.”

When she got back to Mississippi, she didn’t choose HIV care as much as she was seized by it. She started out at the University of Mississippi’s HIV clinic — then a part-time job. But soon, the job “became super full-time work.”

It would stay that way — and she has spent the bulk of her career treating the poorest state’s youngest HIV victims. “I love working with the babies,” she told the Baptist Press. “Sometimes that’s sad, but at least I’m not faced with someone who’s angry over something of their own making.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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