By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Physician Helene Gayle may have been born with a gift for empathy. It was the trait that was nurtured by her family and has guided her work on child malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and diseases among the poor.
Her ability to connect with presidents and prostitutes and her focus on social inequities will serve her well as the new president and chief executive of CARE USA, the international humanitarian organization that fights poverty.
She is a child of the civil rights movement whose father ran a barber and beauty supply business for African Americans in the heart of Buffalo's black community. On Sundays, Jacob Gayle Sr., now deceased, would drag his five children to visit the elderly and the infirm, she recalled.
"The idea of doing something bigger than yourself is something you grew up with in my family in those times," said Gayle, who is in town to attend a gala this evening commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first 20,000 CARE packages reaching World War II survivors in Europe.
Gayle developed a fascination for social causes and their heroes -- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Local Black Panthers came by her father's shop to stock up on products not found in general stores. He ran his business "philanthropically, more as a community service," she said in an interview Monday.
Her mother, Marietta, was a social worker who made friends easily and often brought foreign students home to dinner to expose her children to other cultures.
But Gayle's active young life changed when, in seventh grade, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle. She was hospitalized for three months and spent six months in a body cast at home. "When I was at home recovering, the solitary experience gave me a chance to be introspective," she said.
The following year her parents separated. Because her mother had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital for recurring bouts of mental illness, the family shuttled among several cities, with Gayle and her siblings staying with different relatives, changing schools, learning to survive in new places.
"One of the things this taught me was to keep moving despite the challenges," she said. Her mother's condition, which she had kept private, gave her a natural sense of caring for people going through difficult situations.
In her mind, medicine was the field that could best take care of inequities, diseases and other basic problems. "Pediatrics and health care seemed like a concrete way to do that," said Gayle, 50, who trained at Barnard College and at Children's Hospital in Washington.
Even when she was still training in emergency rooms as a young intern, she said, she was curious about how to have a broader impact. "How do you heal a population rather than just individual patients?" she recalled asking herself.
She spent nearly 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director of its National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. For the past five years, she was director of the Gates Foundation's HIV, TB, and Reproductive Health program.
She proved to be particularly skillful in working with intransigent world leaders. One was South African President Thabo Mbeki , who in the 1990s did not want to admit that AIDS was an infectious disease. "Helene was able to get him to moderate his position, and eventually he asked her to serve on one of his commissions," former surgeon general David Satcher said by telephone from Atlanta. "I have been impressed with her ability -- not just in Africa and Asia, but everywhere -- to work with people from different cultures and to gain their trust. She has a way of relating to others."
Co-workers say she has displayed that ability on trips to Afghanistan and in engaging women in the brothels of Calcutta and Lagos, Nigeria. "Helene Gayle may be the most trusted public health leader in the world," Satcher said. "She does not take herself too seriously, cares deeply about people, and it comes through."
Her skill with politicians was vital, he said. "In that sense, you can call her a global health diplomat."
On becoming president of CARE USA six weeks ago, Gayle took over programs on HIV/AIDS, gender issues, emergency relief and poverty in 70 countries.
Gayle said she can't imagine doing anything else: "This is too gratifying a cause. When you talk to people working on the front lines of survival, I feel there is nothing better I can do with my life than enable them to do what they do. This is what I thrive on."
Donna E. Shalala , president of the University of Miami and former secretary of health and human services, said of Gayle: "She really represents a new generation of health diplomats -- sophisticated, on the cutting edge of new diseases, experienced at negotiating at the highest levels of government or with a sex worker in Calcutta."
Shalala, who accompanied her to Calcutta, added, "She can walk with queens and not lose her common touch."
Gayle described herself simply. "I take my life an experience at a time. My immediate goal is to wake up every day, happy to be alive," she said.