Dr. Mary Guinan is one of the world’s most distinguished physicians. She participated in the eradication of smallpox, then became a member of the Centers for Disease Control’s renowned AIDS team, then became Nevada state health officer, then founding dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She now lives at Lake Tahoe and will sign her new book, Adventures of a Female Medical Detective, at Sundance Books on June 7 at 6:30 p.m.
What was it like writing about your experiences?
The difficulty I had was talking about taking care of people of AIDS. … And I really wasn’t going to write about it because it was just so difficult. I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it during that time because confidentiality—patient confidentiality. … [But] I read an article by Hugh Ryan. He’s an openly gay man who writes for the [New York] Times and other publications. He wrote this article called “How to Whitewash a Plague” [New York Times, Aug. 3, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/zg8ckn2] and it was about a museum that had a showing of the early AIDS epidemic in New York City. And according to him, it showed how everyone came together to help gay men. That hadn’t been my experience. He criticized it. It closed before I went to New York, so I never saw it myself, but he gave me the door to open the door, to talk about how bad they were…how these men were treated during that time.
You also wrote about your India years?
Yes. … I went to the CDC because I wanted to be part of the smallpox eradication program. It was like this incredible idea that someone had. I was finishing medical school and just about that time Kent State happened, and I was just really upset about that because my parents were immigrants and, as a child of immigrants, we always thought about this country being the greatest country in the world and how wonderful and lucky we are to be here and there’s no place like it—and these unarmed students were killed, and then it was like covered up. And so I thought, I’m not sure what I want to do now, but I would like to do something that our government was doing that was good. And I read about the smallpox eradication program. A hundred and sixty five countries of the world decided that they were going to eliminate smallpox in the world—a scourge from very ancient times, a horrible disease! And so I wanted to be a part of it. … I found out from a colleague that there was program at CDC called the Epidemic Intelligence Service, where you learn to be a medical detective. … I eventually got accepted. They weren’t letting women in for a while [laughs].
Tell me what the anthrax episode when you were state health officer was like? [A month after September 11, mail suspected of being laced with anthrax was delivered to an office in Reno.]
The public reaction was very frightening. Everybody was frightened, and it’s understandable. Anthrax is very dangerous. There was a great demand to get antibiotics from physicians. The antibiotic used for anthrax was sold out in Nevada. Everyone tried to get together and decide what to do, and we really didn’t have time to do that, talk to all the various people and say, “OK, let’s have a strategy.” We were constantly putting out fires because we had all sorts of reports of powder, that they had gotten a letter with powder in it and we’d have to investigate that, and people were demanding to have antibiotics. … The letter was sent to the state health department laboratory at [the University of Nevada, Reno], and it was identified as anthrax at that laboratory. Then the sample was sent to the CDC for confirmation. … The CDC said that it was not anthrax. They said it had been misidentified. So that’s that. It made everything OK. In the meantime, I can’t tell you how many doctors called me and told me they were going to prescribe the antibiotics for whoever came in, because how do you know?