At 11, Gayle was hit by a car while bike riding and was put in traction for three months and in a body cast for three more. The accident left her with one shortened leg and a slight limp, although neither is apparent. Nonetheless, she completed high school in three years and went on to major in psychology at Barnard. In medical school, Gayle developed an interest in pediatrics, until at the commencement of one of her brothers she heard a speech by Donald Henderson, MD, who in the 1960s headed the international effort to eradicate smallpox. “It was one of those defining moments,” Gayle says. “Here was somebody who had done what you knew you wanted to do: eradicate a disease off the face of the earth.”
“After that speech, Helene did something so grueling, few people would attempt it,” says Leslie Clapp, MD, a high school classmate of Gayle’s and her best friend for more than 40 years. “She simultaneously earned her MD at the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins.” It probably helped that Gayle appears to have an eidetic memory, enabling her to process and retain information with remarkable efficiency. Clapp remembers her being able to recite the telephone numbers of everyone in their community.
After a residency in pediatrics, in 1984 Gayle entered the epidemiology training program at the CDC, where she chose to focus on HIV/AIDS in the very early days of the disease. “Many people warned me to stay away from HIV,” she says. “They said it was an incredibly charged issue, more about politics than true public health. None of us knew how big an issue this would become.” At the CDC, where she would spend two decades, she rose through the ranks to head the center that focused on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.
In 2001, Gayle joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as director of the HIV, TB and reproductive-health division at the Global Health Program, helping to choose which grants to underwrite and monitoring them afterward. Five years later, she was recruited to lead CARE. She made the move, she says, because she was ready to work on a broader set of issues than she had at Gates or the CDC. “There is no typical day running CARE, which has 13,000 employees,” she says. “I often sit down with our board members, I build partnerships with corporations, NGOs and other stakeholders, and I visit our country offices. I also spend a lot of time raising resources for our work.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy states that Gayle earns $375,000 a year, a sum that is not overly generous when you factor in 15-hour days, seven-day workweeks and extensive travel.
Such an intense workload has left her precious little time for a personal life. She is extremely close to her siblings and vacations with them every year. (It turns out that some of the compulsive texting she does is in response to the jokes her sister Karalenne is always sending her.) Gayle has never married, although she has had long-term relationships and is currently dating a businessman in Atlanta. When asked about the peridot ring on her engagement finger, she laughs. “I bought it myself,” she says. “It’s my birthstone.” She finds that her schedule makes it hard for her to commit—and hard for men to fit into her lifestyle. “Some things become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “You start on one journey, and it becomes harder to make a relationship the central focus. And the longer you don’t . . . I guess if that was the highest priority for me, I would have married.”