Gary Davis had a dream.
In the dream, he saw a goat.
It was December 1992, and his longtime friend had just died of AIDS. The doctor tallied 20 patients he had lost to the dreadful disease--a dozen in one month. He says he was angry at God, so angry he looked toward the heavens before falling asleep one night and issuing this challenge:
"If you're God, then act like God," Davis recalls shouting into the air.
That night, he says, he dreamed he saw himself sticking a goat with a needle, drawing its blood.
"I woke up the next morning, and I knew all this stuff about the AIDS virus that I didn't know before," Davis, a 48-year-old family physician in Tulsa, claims. "I told my wife and children, 'Did you know a goat can't contract HIV?' They thought I was crazy. I told them, no, I saw it in a dream."
A short, bespectacled man with a tawny, round face, a shaved head and a penchant for cowboy-inspired attire, Davis declares the dream guided him in 1994 when he concocted a serum, meant to neutralize the AIDS virus with the antibodies of a goat.
He says the formula works like antivenin, a common medical treatment usually made from the antibodies of a horse and administered when someone is bitten by a poisonous snake. Laboratory tests convinced him, Davis says, that the goat serum works. And he has launched an international crusade to win permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test it on humans.
The agency has denied the trial once. But with dogged persistence and help from some members of Congress, Davis has found an ally: the National Institutes of Health.
He has been helped in the crusade, too, by a popular 8-year-old AIDS activist named Precious Thomas, who lives in Prince George's County with her mother, Rocky Thomas.
After Precious was diagnosed with AIDS, Thomas claims she tracked down Davis for a consultation in 1998, swiped some of his goat serum and injected her daughter with it.
The results, she says, were astonishing.
To Thomas and other Davis supporters, he is a brilliant African American doctor whose work has not been taken seriously because he is an outsider in the well-financed, mostly white world of AIDS research.
But the NIH is more guarded in its assessment of the garrulous doctor who attracts such controversy and talks freely of dreams and guidance from God in a field where scientists are trained to rely solely on data.
More Than One Dream
From as early as he can remember, Gary Davis wanted to be a doctor.
He went to Tulsa junior high and high schools named after African Americans George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. He idolized them. Teachers told him he was gifted in science and math. He believed them.
The youngest of eight siblings, Davis was just 3 when his father died. His mother worked as a nurse's aide at the only black hospital in town. When he stopped there after school to wait for her, doctors and nurses pumped grand ideas into his head.
"You look like a little doctor," they told him.
That seemed a far stretch for an African American child growing up in the north Tulsa community called Greenwood. It had been a proud place once, so prosperous it was known as "Negro Wall Street." In the early 1900s, there were 34 square blocks of African American homes and businesses: two newspapers, a dozen grocery stores, theaters, hotels, restaurants and doctors' offices.
People say white Tulsans envied such success and were ready to explode when a black man bumped into--or attacked--a white woman on an office building elevator near Greenwood on May 31, 1921. She screamed. He was arrested. And the newspaper fanned the flames.
People say the white mob that crossed into Greenwood that day numbered about 1,000. An estimated 300 people died in the two-day confrontation. A thousand homes and businesses were burned to the ground. Negro Wall Street was left smoldering.
By the time Davis came of age, drugs, prostitution, gambling and violent crime had drained any remaining dignity.
But God always put angels in his path, Davis says.
They were people like Charles Maddin, a white research chemist and father of a childhood friend. While visiting the Maddin home, Davis mentioned that he wanted to be a doctor someday. Maddin hired the ninth-grader on the spot as his research assistant, and Davis kept the job all four years of high school.
"It was like I was his son," Davis says. "When I went to college, he supported me. He was there every time I got an award. He never missed a graduation."
For college, Davis chose Northeastern State University, a short, 50-minute drive away. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics and received a military scholarship to Dartmouth Medical School.
After graduating from medical school in 1977, Davis followed his father's footsteps into the U.S. Navy and snagged a prized slot as a surgical intern at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
But in 1984, north Tulsa beckoned him home.
Lawrence Reed, a family doctor who had worked at the segregated hospital with Davis's mother, was looking for a partner. The men teamed up and opened a clinic in historic Greenwood. In no time, Davis was seeing up to 50 patients a day.
"With his education, he could have gone anywhere in the U.S. or the world," Reed, 69, says of his former partner. "But he chose to come back to what we call the bottoms. He's determined to stay here and lift it up."
Just two years after his arrival back home, Davis found himself in trouble with the Oklahoma Board of Medical Examiners. He was accused of writing excessive prescriptions of controlled dangerous substances and summoned to appear at a hearing.
Davis says he unfairly drew suspicion because he was a young doctor practicing in a drug-infested area. Many of his patients had serious illnesses, such as sickle cell anemia and cancer, and required large amounts of pain medication, he says.
But the doctor cooperated with the board, which reprimanded him and placed him on a three-year probation. After just one year of monitoring his prescription-writing habits, though, the board terminated the probation.
By 1987, Davis had outgrown his space in the clinic and branched out on his own. He relocated to the top two floors of a restored old office building in the heart of Greenwood. Legend has it that his third-floor executive office once belonged to a doctor killed in the race riot.
People used to whisper about the riot. But since the Oklahoma legislature formed a commission three years ago to set the historical record straight, folks throughout the nation are debating just how much the city and state owe its black survivors for one of the worst race riots in American history.
The 1990s brought Greenwood a new wave of devastation.
"I didn't know the AIDS crisis would hit this hard in the black community," Davis says. "I got tired of signing death certificates."
Then came the dream.
"People tell me it must be from God," Davis says. "I have not had one person yet tell me it's not from God. Of course, most of the ones I talk to, being in the Bible Belt, believe in God. "
Three months later, Davis collapsed in his office. A serious back condition temporarily paralyzed him. Back surgery left 10 pins and rods attached to his spine and kept him off his feet for the rest of 1993.
As he lay on his stomach recuperating, his mind raced with thoughts of AIDS. He picked apart his dream. He saw faces of the dead patients. He pondered why humans contract the virus while some animals do not.
Some days, Davis pulled himself on his side and stayed for hours with medical textbooks propped close to his face. He studied books on immunology, infectious diseases, microbiology. He called old professors to ask questions. He called friends to bring him more books, magazines and medical journals with stories about the latest in AIDS research.
"I was calling all over town," Davis says. "I was laid up and had nothing else to do."
Soon he came to believe that the cure for AIDS could be found in antibodies, big molecules that function as part of the body's immune system to ward off potentially harmful substances, such as viruses. He sent a friend to research the use of antibodies in AIDS research.
The friend discovered a patent abstract written by a doctor who had tried to develop an AIDS treatment from the antibodies of a pig. The doctor went to Switzerland to test it on a patient, who subsequently died of pneumonia.
Good theory, Davis thought. Wrong animal. He harked back to his dream.
He called the dean of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
"I think I know how to cure AIDS," Davis says he told the Tuskegee dean, who is now deceased. "He said, 'What?' I explained it to him, and I was told to explain it to the department's immunologist, and if he agreed, they would let me do this."
Tuskegee officials are not talking. But Davis says that when he got back on his feet in early 1994, he secured a female goat from a Tuskegee professor who owned a goat farm. He also requested a sample of HIV from Dr. Pauline Jolly, a virologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and an experienced researcher who often does work for the NIH.
Davis returned to his medical practice full-time. In his spare time, he worked on his experiment. By the spring of 1995, he had inoculated the goat with the virus two different times and waited while the animal's body produced antibodies. Three weeks later, he drew the first sample of the goat's blood and used a centrifuge to separate the serum from the blood cells. He repeated the process each week for the next five weeks, then sent the samples to Jolly, who tested them in a lab. In July 1995, Davis says, he got the results: The Week Six serum sample had stopped the virus from entering a human cell, eliminated infected cells and spared normal ones.
"I said, glory hallelujah, it's true," he recalls in his proud, Southern drawl. "This stuff works."
Jolly confirmed those results. But she says she warned Davis that a successful lab experiment was no guarantee that the serum could be used safely in humans with the same result.
Davis says he worked over the next few months to perfect the process of extracting and purifying the serum. Then, in early 1996, he contacted the Food and Drug Administration and filed an Investigational New Drug application in 1996.
That was the first step to getting permission to test the serum on humans. When the stack of paperwork arrived, he hand-printed each page and mailed the packet back.
Soon afterward, Davis says, he received a letter from the federal agency, explaining that he could begin the clinical trial after 30 days unless officials raised questions during that time. He lined up patients to take the serum. But the day before he was scheduled to begin, he got the disappointing call. The FDA had rejected the trial.
FDA officials declined to comment. But Jonathan Kagan, the researcher working closely with Davis at the National Institutes of Health, guesses that Davis's lack of research experience may have motivated the FDA's rejection.
Davis was furious.
"I'm a black physician in the heart of the Tulsa ghetto," he says. "I'm not Pfizer. I'm not Merck. Get real. It's hard for you to be accepted within the ruling clique. What you say has to be proven above and beyond the normal expectations."
He was not about to go away quietly.
Martey Quaye was desperate.
He took care of the sick in Tulsa every day through a home health care agency he owned with his wife, a nurse. But the 55-year-old West African immigrant could do nothing to save his own brother, Ataa, who was among the thousands dying of AIDS back home in Ghana.
Quaye often crossed paths with Davis through work, and he had heard about the goat serum. It seemed his brother's only hope.
Quaye says he arranged to see Davis in 1997 and pleaded with the doctor to help. Davis agreed. He says he broke no law and saw no ethical dilemma when he later gave step-by-step instructions to a West African doctor, who made a batch of the serum and injected the dying African man.
Davis denies providing the serum himself.
"It amounts to a simple chemistry experiment," he says.
Quaye traveled to Ghana to be with his brother. When he returned to Tulsa five weeks later, he brought a videotape that purportedly showed Ataa, sick and lifeless before the goat serum injections, able to walk around and even exercise afterward. Quaye also brought what he said were medical records proving his brother's health had gotten better.
"When we went, he could barely stand," Quaye said. "After about three weeks, he was up doing his own laundry, and he was going out."
Quaye said his brother, a tailor, is doing so well that he is back to his bad, old ways.
"He's doing fine," Quaye said. "But he drinks too much, and he's dabbling with women."
The Quayes said they have not talked recently to the physician to find out whether Ataa is still taking the goat serum.
A Fox television reporter in Washington heard the news and contacted Quaye. Quaye showed the reporter the video and medical records. The reporter investigated and aired a story.
That evening, Rocky Thomas was watching the news in her Prince George's County apartment. Her ears tuned in when she heard the word "AIDS." She had just enrolled Precious, her 8-year-old daughter, in a clinical trial at the NIH for a new drug cocktail. But, Thomas says, the child had been exposed to the chicken pox and so had to delay taking the medication.
Born to a drug-addicted mother, Precious was just 2 months old when Thomas decided to adopt her. Before her first birthday, the child got sick with pneumonia, and doctors told the new mother that her baby girl was infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
As Thomas watched the news, her daughter lay in bed sick. Precious was lethargic, had little appetite and suffered frequent diarrhea. Her mother was scared.
"In the back of my mind, I kept saying, I got to go see the goat doctor," says Thomas, a former beautician who now cares full time for her daughter.
Thomas called Davis. Then, in April 1998 she boarded a train for Tulsa with her sick child. Once there, she says, she grilled Davis about the serum, how it would be administered, how much a patient would have to take.
The questions didn't seem suspicious at the time, Davis says, so he answered each one. He says he was excited about the potential for the serum and eager to share information.
What happened next is unclear. Thomas has declined to provide many details. But if what she and Davis have said is true, the desperate mother slipped into a freezer next to Davis's office without his knowledge and stole a vial of the serum. Over the next several weeks, she used the hypothetical information she got from Davis and injected her daughter with seven doses of the serum over a period of several weeks.
Davis says the stolen vial had been used in testing, and he did not realize for weeks that it was missing. He insists he did not inject Precious, give Thomas the serum or suggest that she steal it. But he is unapologetic for providing the information.
Since Davis did not contact police, Thomas faces no legal charges. Davis says an FDA investigator questioned him, but the FDA spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny whether the agency is looking into the incident.
Still, questions linger: How did Thomas know where the serum was kept? How did she manage to slip into a freezer in a busy medical office without anyone seeing her? And why didn't Davis call the police once he learned Thomas had stolen the serum and given it to her child?
Davis says he never even considered calling the police because he sympathizes with Thomas.
"If you do nothing, what's going to happen?" he asks, referring to AIDS patients. "They are going to die."
The new approved drug therapies prolong life, but many patients, particularly poor African Americans, have had trouble adhering to the rigorous medication schedules. And, no matter what, Davis says, AIDS still ends in death.
"Why can't you give a [dying] patient medication if it shows some promise in a test tube?" he asks. "If you win, look at what you win. You have nothing to lose."
Critics of unproven alternative treatments have an answer: Sick people lose the resolve and the opportunity to use medication that has been scientifically proven to help. Instead, they put their faith in miracles, miracles that rarely pan out.
Three months after the alleged theft, a gleeful Thomas called Davis with some news: She had stolen the serum, given it to Precious, and the child's high viral load, the amount of virus in her blood, had dropped to undetectable levels.
"As a mother, I was stepping out on a limb," Thomas says. "I was tired of seeing my child sick and suffering."
It was not the first time Thomas had turned to a nonconventional AIDS treatment for her daughter.
In June 1996, Precious joined other mostly African American patients taking a controversial drug known as low-dose oral alpha interferon, or Kemron. She received the treatments at the Abundant Life Clinic, a community health center in the District.
For years in the early 1990s, the drug was at the center of an intense racial debate that pitted skeptical researchers at the NIH against black doctors and scientists who argued that the drug had shown promising results in Africa and should be tested in the states as a possible cure.
The NIH authorized a clinical trial of the drug in April 1996, but the agency ultimately halted the study early because many of the sites had trouble attracting and keeping patients enrolled. New drug therapies, known as protease inhibitors, had made their grand entrance, and patients were less willing to try the experimental Kemron.
Thomas will say only that Kemron "worked for a while." But she, too, moved on with her daughter's treatment.
The goat serum might have been permanently relegated to the underground world of controversial AIDS remedies if not for one fact: Precious was under the care of doctors at the NIH when her mother gave her the serum.
The doctors assumed she was following their protocol. But they were about to learn in dramatic fashion that they had been duped.
Slivers of Hope
By the fall of 1998, Precious was gaining weight. Her appetite and energy had returned. And Rocky Thomas was ready to tell the world about the goat doctor.
Houston television anchor Linda Lorelle heard about Precious from an acquaintance. She called Thomas and arranged an interview for KPRC, an NBC affilliate. With cameras rolling and tears streaming down her face, Thomas sat at her dining room table and revealed the whole story.
She told how she had stockpiled the drugs prescribed by the NIH clinical trial and instead injected Precious with the serum. She pulled out the NIH's own medical reports showing that Precious's high viral load had dropped to zero just four months after she began taking the serum.
Confronted with the deception on camera, a stunned NIH doctor said only that she could not explain what happened.
The reporter interviewed U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), whose largely black Houston district has been hit hard by AIDS. The congresswoman promised to help. The story aired in Houston about the same time that Precious was telling her story at a town hall meeting, convened by the Congressional Black Caucus at Howard University in late 1998.
Former U.S. representative Louis Stokes presided over the meeting, which focused on AIDS as a major health crisis in the African American community. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher was there, as the event was broadcast simultaneously to black colleges throughout the country.
Barely visible from her seat behind the microphone, Precious told the audience that her mother "put her freedom on the line" to steal the serum and give it to her. When she finished, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Stokes assured the audience that he was working to get FDA approval of a clinical trial. Now retired, he says he assigned the matter to his chief of staff, who called the FDA.
"I know they indicated they had some concerns relating to [Davis's] process," Stokes says, referring to FDA officials. "But they indicated they would work with us."
Lee directed her attention to the NIH.
"Our office pressured NIH to insist that Dr. Davis be heard," says Lee, a member of the science committee in the House. "Our mission was to ensure that he did not get the doors closed in his face."
Timing may have worked in her favor.
The number of African Americans with HIV and AIDS has risen steadily, and in recent years the NIH has sought to increase the number of minorities in its clinical trials. For years, critics have complained that the agency has not done enough to include African American patients and researchers.
The last thing the agency needed was another racial flap.
Finally, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, granted Davis's request for a meeting. Davis pleaded his case. Fauci agreed to help.
But there was a catch:
"We suggested he go back to square one," says Kagan, the researcher assigned to Davis.
Davis would have to remake the serum and repeat the in vitro tests under the watch of the federal agency. The parties put the agreement in writing and signed a "Memorandum of Understanding," outlining the agency's promise to provide more HIV for the research, assist in screening, and conduct studies that either support or reject the doctor's claims.
"If it worked once, it should work again," Kagan says.
Kagan heads the agency's AIDS drug development program, which assists independent researchers trying to develop drugs or treatments without the backing of large pharmaceutical companies or prestigious academic institutions. If Davis is successful in repeating his research, he may have an easier time getting federal approval to try his serum on humans in the United States.
But Kagan and other NIH researchers have their doubts about whether the goat serum will work.
"My persistent opinion and that of several of my colleagues is that this is not likely to be a viable approach," Kagan says. "There is a mountain of evidence to give us pause or diminish our enthusiasm that an antibody treatment will be effective."
Other researchers have tried without success to develop AIDS treatments using the antibodies of other species, particularly mice, but those experiments have not been successful. Researchers also believe antibodies are too large to penetrate some areas of the body where HIV lurks.
"Nobody really knows why," Kagan says. "But antibodies are just not effective in treating HIV infection."
What about Precious?
Kagan says that any results she may have gotten from the goat serum cannot be evaluated because she was not part of an experiment done under controlled conditions. In fact, her mother may have taken a dangerous risk.
When the antibody of an animal is introduced into humans, the human body can produce antibodies to fight off the foreign antibodies. The condition, known as serum sickness, can be fatal, though that is not likely.
Nonetheless, Kagan says, Davis's idea is worthy of testing.
"It's not the hottest or the greatest idea, but it's certainly not a ludicrous one," Kagan says. "It falls into the realm of the reasonable. . . . We don't have a crystal ball. We can't say for sure it won't work."
That sliver of hope is good enough for the goat doctor.
In fact, he already may have found a way to provide the serum to patients in Canada, where the law permits terminally ill patients to purchase unapproved, experimental drugs from outside the country. Anxious to see some progress, Davis admits that he gave some of the serum to officials on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, which operates as an independent nation.
Through the reservation, Davis says, the father of a 12-year-old HIV-positive boy in Canada obtained the serum and treated his son with it. Davis declined to reveal the name of the father or child, but says the boy's health improved.
The goat doctor.
Davis laughs when he hears himself described that way.
He knows there are doubters. But in his world, plenty of people believe.
His new clinic, a sprawling, one-level, reddish-brick building, sits less than a mile from the old place on Greenwood. He moved there three years ago after his spinal surgery left him unable to climb the spiral staircase to his old third-floor office.
These days, he enters and exits through a private door in the back. Otherwise, he could easily blow an hour. He is not the kind of guy who could pass a familiar face in the parking lot or halls without stopping to slap a back, shake a hand, tell a story or share a laugh. And in north Tulsa, so many of the faces are familiar.
The security guard. The janitor. The patients. Davis treats them all like old friends. They like that "Dr. Gary" acts like regular people, that he didn't get all that education and forget about them, that he talks about God, that he asks about their mamas, daddies, sisters and brothers.
"He is a pillar of the community when it comes to the medical service he has provided to north Tulsa, and the way he treats his patients," says Marshall Bryant, 76, a lifelong Tulsa resident.
A retired federal employee and the son of a doctor, Bryant volunteered five years ago to serve on a committee of Tulsa residents who organized to support Davis. Bryant heads the committee, which still meets monthly to swap current AIDS data that could be helpful to Davis, discuss AIDS research and plan community outreach programs.
"Dr. Davis has been totally unselfish in his efforts," Bryant says. "For these reasons and others, folks have been as supportive of him as he has been of them."
Folks around north Tulsa say they are pulling for Davis, and they are hoping his goat serum will eventually get its due. Davis says he is confident the day will come.
That assurance, he says, comes from a higher source.
"Thank God that God is God and not man," he says. "Man will destroy you, tell you that nothing like this can work. He uses his damn intellect too much. The plan's gonna go through. But in God's time."