Emily Le Coz, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger
After enduring endless global media attention for her breakthrough discovery in HIV treatment, Hannah Gay craves a return to the mundane aspects of life.
So, a haircut first. Then back to work at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where, as the state's leading pediatric HIV specialist, Gay heads a team of experts tracking and treating infected youths from Aberdeen to Yazoo City.
This weekend, she might even curl up with a book and do some needlepoint at the Ridgeland, Miss., home she shares with her husband of 37 years, Paul, a trust fund manager.
"It has definitely been a whirlwind, and I'm having trouble keeping up with what day it is," Gay said Tuesday while attending an international conference in Atlanta on HIV and AIDS.
The conference shares the latest research in her field, but Gay's sudden global fame kept her busy with journalists rather than catching the lectures she'd hoped to attend.
Gay shot to fame Monday after she and other colleagues reported the first documented cure of a child who'd had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The Mississippi toddler had contracted HIV in the womb of her infected mother. Gay aggressively treated the girl with medication starting at 30 hours of life until she was about 18 months old. Then both child and mother disappeared.
When Gay tracked them down five months later, the mother confessed she'd stopped giving her daughter medicine. Gay had expected the virus to come roaring back but instead discovered the child appeared to be HIV-free.
Several follow-up tests, as well as verification of previous tests, confirmed the cure.
"The breakthrough has been exciting, and I'm very hopeful that that's going to lead to future research that will give us some answers," Gay said. But "the media attention is not exactly welcomed. Overall it's just kind of overwhelming."
Gay is perhaps the most unlikely person to bask in the spotlight, said Jay Richardson, her former pastor at Highland Colony Baptist Church in Jackson. Richardson described the 59-year-old as a fiercely private person with a deep yearning for knowledge.
She doesn't like a lot of attention and prefers intimate discussions to speaking before a crowd.
Said former Mississippi AIDS Director Craig Thompson: "She's so humble. She's like that country farmer who says, 'aw shucks.'"
Born and raised in Jackson, Gay was the younger of two children. Her brother, Gregory Berry, excelled early in life and went on to earn a doctorate in medieval English at Yale. To escape from his shadow, Gay focused instead on math and science, her husband said.
Her studies led her to the University of Mississippi at Oxford where she majored in pre-med and was the president of the university's Pre-Med Society. While there, she met Paul Gay, and the two started dating.
Both shared a passion for religion and became heavily involved in church while in college. After they graduated, the couple moved to Jackson so Hannah Gay could attend medical school and do her residency at UMC. They also started a family.
But their faith soon led them across the world.
"With two babies, we went as foreign missionaries to Ethiopia in 1987," Paul Gay said. "We were there during the drought and for the conclusion of their civil war and the fall of the Ethiopian government."
The young family stayed in the east African country for six years. During that time, Paul Gay worked as the mission's treasurer, and Hannah Gay wrote and edited its publication. The couple also expanded its brood to four.
When the family returned to Jackson in 1994, Hannah Gay found a job at UMC's Pediatric Infectious Disease program and soon earned a reputation as the go-to pediatric specialist for HIV/AIDS.
Gay has dedicated the past two decades to her work, and her grueling schedule speaks for itself: "She wakes at 5 a.m., starts working on paperwork, which is a huge part of her job and growing," her husband said. "She will start handling phone calls with her nurses by 8 a.m. Then she gets into work and typically stays there until 6 or 7 in the evening. She'll get home, more paperwork."
She's also on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, her husband said.
At work, Gay interacts warmly with her young patients while efficiently managing her hand-picked staff, said Amy Smith, a pediatric nurse practitioner on Gay's team. Smith said Gay puts everyone at ease.
"HIV is very complex, but she's able to explain it to these children so they understand," Smith said. "The more they understand, the more they'll comply with their medications."
Gay wants to bring the number of HIV-infected babies in Mississippi to zero and keep it there. Once she's done that, she said, she might be able to retire.
That doesn't mean she'll slow down. Gay already lives a full life outside of work. She sings in the choir and leads a Bible drill youth group at Trace Ridge Baptist Church in Ridgeland. She reads a variety of books based on medicine and theology. She does needlepoint based on designs she's seen in other cultures and gives her wares as gifts.
Gay also remains active in the lives of her four adult children. Two serve overseas in the Marine Corps, one is a Nashville-area musician, and the other works at UMC like her mom. All play piano. All take after their mom, said Paul Gay.
"Our son that went to Parris Island for boot camp said, 'Mom, all of these drill instructors are just saying the same things you've been saying all my life," Paul Gay said. "'Do it right the first time. Take pride in what you're doing. You have to work at it if you're going to be satisfied with it.'
"That's what she would tell them," he said. "She'd say, 'I want you to do your best long enough to realize the joy that comes from that, and once you've experienced it, you'll never want to slack off again.'"
That's how Gay has lived her life, and it's taken her to the top of her field.
Now she's ready to settle back down.
"She, I know, would like to get back and do her paperwork and treat her babies and get the kids ready for Bible drill and help our daughter move into a new apartment," Paul Gay said. "All those things that moms and normal people like to do."