In March 2013, an international media explosion swirled around a tiny baby girl and an extremely destructive virus. Born to an HIV-positive mother in a rural hospital, the infected infant was rushed to University of Mississippi Medical Center for immediate care. Upon her arrival, at a mere 30 hours old, a doctor began treating her with three aggressive drugs. Twenty-three months later, it appeared the child, dubbed the “Mississippi baby,” had been functionally cured of HIV. The world took notice.
At the heart of the storm was Dr. Hannah Gay, a brilliant pediatric HIV specialist at UMMC. Hannah was recognized as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and she gracefully waded through the spotlight. Beneath the image of a world-renowned physician is a shy woman who can send a wave of calm over you in a simple conversation. Hannah says softly, “My faith defines who I am. It influences everything I do and every decision that I make.” Not originally trained in HIV or infectious diseases, Hannah’s devotion to God and her family have led her down a fascinating career path to success.
Faith pulled Hannah, her husband Paul and their two small children to the famine-stricken country of Ethiopia in 1987. She helped orchestrate major feeding projects, provided clean water supplies, and happily offered healthcare for mission employees and their families. But mostly, Hannah loved staying home and caring for her children. “When we arrived in Ethiopia, we had two children. When we left in 1993, we had four,” Hannah laughs. Her pastor, Steve Street of Trace Ridge Baptist Church in Ridgeland, says, “The Gays are an extremely close family. I know Hannah and Paul had mixed emotions about leaving the mission calling, but they returned to Jackson for the sake of their children.”
Back home in Jackson, Hannah was longing to get back into American medicine, but only part-time. She could not bear missing out on quality time with her children. Hannah’s daughter, Ruth Gay Thomas, says, “Never was there a time when my mom didn’t make a piano recital or a school play. Her family has always been her first priority, and her kids at work are also a huge priority. She has always had the perfect balance.”
Hannah approached the Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at UMMC and he offered her a part-time position as a disease specialist in the HIV clinic. “I told him that I had no training whatsoever in HIV or infectious diseases. I was just a general pediatrician,” says Hannah. “He looked at me and said, ‘that’s okay. You will learn.’”
Two months later, she inherited the HIV program, at a time when the knowledge base of HIV was spreading as quickly as wildfire. “We discovered we could prevent transmission from a mother to an infant, which was so exciting! We also began developing new and better drugs for infected children. It has been very rewarding to see the transformation of a disease thought to be a universally fatal illness into a chronic, treatable illness.” Hannah also laughs,” I have been stuck in the HIV program for twenty years now!”
Daphne Sigler, RN Case Manager with the Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UMMC, works closely with Hannah’s patients and their families. “The babies are our priority. Being infected with HIV is overwhelming, and our role is to make this process as comfortable and easy as possible.” She adds, “Hannah is wonderful. She is reassuring with our families and patients; we cry with them and we celebrate with them. Hannah is kind and generous, and has such a calming effect to her. She is an excellent doctor and a wonderful resource for the entire state of Mississippi.”
The child’s virus was controlled, and she continued seeing Hannah regularly until around 12 months, when she began missing appointments. Hannah and her staff suspected that she was not receiving her medication. Suddenly, she stopped coming.
With help from the Department of Human Services, the child was found at 23-months-old and her mother admitted she had not given her any medicine since her 18-month visit. Shockingly, when tests were run, the virus was undetectable in her body. “I was totally confused. Bumfuzzled,” admits Hannah. State-of-the-art labs could not find any replication of the virus in her blood. “Usually the HIV virus shows up in the blood within two weeks of not taking medication. For this child to have gone 6 months and have tests come back negative was so highly unusual, it was unique. There had never been a baby reported like this before.”
News outlets flooded Hannah with attention. Her daughter, Ruth, reflects, “Never in a million years would you expect this quiet, shy woman who hates attention to be in the thick of the spotlight!” Even with the glare of the world blindingly focused on her, Hannah directed the glory to God. “I was not specifically thinking about my life and I didn’t pray over the decision to treat the child that day. I was just practicing the best medicine I knew how to practice,” says Hannah. “I did not dream in my wildest dreams that this particular baby would be anything special. I was trying to prevent her from being infected. I failed – it was God who did the miracles, and I just happened to be standing close by at the time.”
Steve Street adds with awe, “Even with the media storm around her, she quietly came into church, enjoyed singing in the choir, and lovingly cared for children in the nursery. Those were her preferred places. We have a deep respect for her in our church as a servant. A humble servant.”
The “Mississippi baby’s” virus remained undetected until her 27-month birthday, when disappointing news struck. Her tests came back positive in July 2014. Thankfully, she is on medication and responding well. Hannah smiles and says, “In Science, it is common that we learn as much or more from our failures as from our successes. It opened up a new line of research and we are still hoping this case will be a big contributor to a cure.” With God lighting her path, Hannah is taking significant strides in fighting this complex disease.