New! Spotlight on Medical Power Couples: Their Extraordinary Lives

Alicia Gallegos


June 16, 2021

Medscape's Medical Power Couples is a new series highlighting spouses or domestic partners prominent in healthcare. Both have achieved high-level professional success and have made significant contributions to their respective fields.

Carlos del Rio, MD, and Jeannette Guarner, MD

Carlos del Rio, MD, and Jeannette Guarner, MD, pose during a trip to Vail, Colorado.

When people started dying from lethal anthrax spores sent through the mail in 2001, infectious disease expert Jeannette Guarner, MD, was called to Florida and Connecticut to analyze the bodies. She and her pathology team investigated how the bacteria had entered the victims and examined tissue samples from across the country to discern the scale of the attacks.

After conducting autopsies and identifying that inhalation anthrax caused the deaths, Guarner rushed home to Atlanta just in time for Thanksgiving. Exhausted, the beloved family chef still managed to cook the big turkey that holiday, but she enlisted help with dessert.

"She returned home on Thanksgiving at like 3 in the morning," recalls Carlos del Rio. "She said to me, 'In order for us to have Thanksgiving, you have to be in charge of the pies.' When I told my daughter, she said, 'This is going to be a disaster! If mom's not cooking, this is not going to be good.'"

"It didn't turn out that bad," Guarner laughs. "There was dessert."

As two of the top infectious disease experts in the country, Guarner and del Rio are no strangers to jugging their personal lives around disease outbreaks, last-minute travel, and pressing research.

Former director of the clinical laboratory at Mexico's National Cancer Institute, Guarner worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 10 years where she played an integral part in the discovery of SARS. She and her team identified that a coronavirus was in cultures taken from a healthcare worker who died after working in Asia, and determined through molecular testing that the virus was different from any other coronaviruses at the time.

Guarner went on to search for the novel virus in tissue samples and determine that it was SARS that had caused the damage. She is now a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Emory University, medical director of the clinical laboratory at Emory University Hospital Midtown, and vice chair for faculty affairs.

Del Rio, who served as director of the National AIDS Council of Mexico, is a distinguished professor of medicine in Emory University School of Medicine's Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor of global health and epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. He is also co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, and co-principal investigator of the Emory-CDC HIV Clinical Trials Unit and the Emory Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit.

Del Rio's work in HIV prevention and care has made great strides, including developing the concept for the HIV Care Continuum, a public health model that outlines the stages that HIV patients go through, from diagnosis to achieving viral suppression. Del Rio, who is foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine, has also worked on emerging infections such as pandemic influenza and was a member of the WHO Influenza A (H1N1) Clinical Advisory Group and of the CDC Influenza A Task Force during the 2009 pandemic.

Carlos del Rio, MD, and Jeannette Guarner, MD, on a trip to Dubai.

Del Rio and Guarner met during medical school in Mexico City. At first, the two carpooled to classes, but when Guarner fell ill with hepatitis A, del Rio brought Guarner the class notes so she wouldn't fall behind. The study buddies later became a couple and married just before coming to the United States for residency.

With their expertise in infectious disease, del Rio and Guarner have worked collaboratively in the past, but the couple says they've always maintained separate professional identities.

"We try to create our own spaces," del Rio said. "You try to keep your personal and professional identity independent as much as possible. You don't want people to say, 'Oh, you got this or you're doing this because you are married to this other person.' You want, to a certain degree, intellectual independence."

This has been easier in some ways because del Rio and Guarner have different last names. Over the years they have frequently encountered people who had no idea that they are married.

"One time, we were both down in the lab and Jeanette was discussing a case, and she started teasing me or poking me, making fun," recalls del Rio. "Some of the ID fellows were like, 'Oh my God, who the hell is this woman?' They didn't realize she was my wife."

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, both Guarner and del Rio have been involved in different ways with the pandemic. Del Rio has seen patients, conducted clinical trials, and given hundreds of local and national interviews about the virus. As a laboratory director, Guarner has validated tests for the diagnosis of COVID-19 and counseled staff on exposure concerns.

"An important aspect has also been to make sure that our laboratory technologists understand the disease and the need for the different protection elements we have had to use in the hospital," she said. "In many ways I have had to scale down fears the techs have had when handling specimens from these patients."

In Their Own Words

What was one of your most surprising discoveries?

Jeannette: During the anthrax attacks, we received lots of tissues on live patients, particularly skin biopsies from different parts of the country where pathologists had concerns that there was anthrax. From New York, we received more than 50 skin biopsies and discovered that the necrotic lesions suspected of anthrax had Rickettsia in them. In other words, we discovered that rickettsialpox — a mite-borne infectious disease — was circulating in the city, which was unknown at the time.

Describe a challenge that you overcame:

Carlos: When I was appointed as director of the National AIDS Council of Mexico (CONASIDA), I was quite young, only 32 years old. I had to learn to listen to others who had expertise and institutional memory, to respect their opinions, and at the same time to push for change. A huge challenge was the role of the Catholic Church and conservative groups that were adamantly against condom promotion. Thus, I learned how to advance policies based in science without being confrontational.

Have you ever been famous for anything other than your work?

Jeannette: In 2017, a tree fell on our house during Hurricane Irma. It fell right on my husband's office a few minutes after he left the room. Fortunately, I have always been small and flexible, and I crawled through the rubble to save our valuables before they were ruined by the rain. Later, a local Atlanta TV news crew was in the neighborhood reporting on the damage, and I told them to come to our house if they wanted to see real damage. That night, we were on the local news.

NEXT: Power Couple Paul and Mary Klotman.


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