In the Time of AIDS, A Nonstop Crusader

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 9, 2008


She drags colleagues out of bed for 5 a.m. runs in Hanoi and Bangkok. She touches down in Jamaica just long enough to deliver a wedding toast after stops in Washington and Atlanta. Once, she even quick-changed into a ball gown in the bathroom on the same day that she had flown from Washington to New York and back again for a soiree.

And now Helene Gayle, Global Poverty and AIDS Fighter, is trying to make small talk in a taxi lurching through the snarl of traffic here. "Nice weather," she says. "When does it get cold here?"

That conversational ground covered, Gayle is back inside her head. Deep inside. Her lips are pursed, emphasizing high cheekbones that would be the envy of any runway model. She's gazing into space, surely "processing something," as her brother Jacob Gayle says she tends to do, "multitasking more than any other human being could imagine." She's riffling through briefing papers for the 17th International AIDS Conference here. She's checking her BlackBerry for the fifth time in the past five minutes.

She has the reserved, socially cautious demeanor of the scientist who dwells in facts. And, as the head of CARE, she has to emote with passion and charisma to lead one of the world's largest charities, operating in 71 countries, with 13,000 employees and a $545 million budget.

Somehow, they co-exist, these two Helene Gayles. The shy one and the one whom Bill Gates and his foundation once trusted with hundreds of millions of Microsoft-minted dollars, the one who kicks it in India with Richard Gere and talks shop with Bono. The one who makes the scene in designer gowns.

"She's an introverted loner," her brother says.

"She's a force of nature," says Aparajita Ramakrishnan of the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, a program launched by Gayle.

"A world-renowned woman -- it's so natural for her," U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) says.

A quarter-century after the emergence of AIDS, Gayle, 52, a pediatrician and epidemiologist by training, has cemented her place in an elite class of international decision makers who are shaping what the next quarter-century of the disease might look like. Theirs is a community of scientists, physicians and fundraisers who tend to slide back and forth from government gigs to charities to academia, just as Gayle has hopscotched from big jobs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Gates Foundation to the helm of CARE.

Many in this interlacing world think Gayle will be shortlisted for something big -- secretary of health and human services or surgeon general -- if Barack Obama is elected president. Gayle, who has been donating money to Obama's campaigns since 2004, but also gave to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, said in an interview that she wouldn't rule out a return to government. CARE provided "in some ways my dream job," she says, but if a big government post were dangled in front of her, she'd "have to weigh that seriously."

For now, though, she inhabits a universe of disease chasers that has matured from the early, confused days of "the gay plague" -- a time when Gayle says activists sometimes threw tomatoes at her -- to a full-fledged global movement.

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