Nancy Jaax had retired years ago, making a home with her husband, a fellow scientist, in Lenexa.
Then Hollywood came knocking to do her life story. Now Emmy winning actress Julianna Margulies will play the retired veterinary pathologist in the six-part miniseries “The Hot Zone,” premiering Monday on National Geographic.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Jaax, who, like her husband, is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. “It’s flattering that they are portraying us by name.”
The miniseries is based on Richard Preston’s 1994 book of the same name, telling the true story of the first time a strain of the highly contagious Ebola virus from the central African rain forest was detected in the United States.
It was 1989, at a primate facility in Reston, Virginia, a suburb outside Washington, D.C.
Her husband, Jerry Jaax, who grew up on a farm near Conway Springs and was a veterinarian animal medical specialist. The two worked with a military team of researchers to head off an outbreak they feared could spread through the human population with deadly consequences. Noah Emmerich, known for his role as an FBI agent in the FX series “The Americans,” will play him.
But Nancy Jaax, a native Wichitan, is the central character in the series, a mother, wife and only the second woman to be a member of the Army’s veterinarian corps.
“There just weren’t very many women going in to veterinarian school back then,” she said.
And, her husband said, “Nancy was a critical part of the Ebola story. She had been working in labs for eight or 10 years” at the time of the Reston scare.
The couple said writers came to their Lenexa home to talk about those dangerous days.
The Ebola strain was discovered in macaque monkeys shipped from the Philippines. Nancy Jaax, the mother of two children — who are also portrayed in the miniseries — risks her life to help contain the virus.
The scientists later discovered that the strain was not the same as the deadly virus that years earlier had swept through villages in Zaire and southern Sudan. It did not spread from animals to humans. Years later, a deadly form of the virus did kill several people in the U.S., from 2014 to 2017.
“The Hot Zone” was developed and produced by Lynda Obst, who has spent the last 25 years trying to get the project to the screen and is known for such hit films as “Flashdance,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Contact.”
In another local connection, the show was also produced by Kelly Souders (“Smallville”), a Kansas City native and University of Kansas graduate, along with her producing partner, Brian Peterson.
Margulies, who won Emmys for her roles on “The Good Wife” and “ER,” told The Associated Press that she consulted with Nancy Jaax, asking her what she thought about back in 1989 when she put on a hazmat suit to handle one of the world’s deadliest viruses.
“I said, ‘Were you thinking of your life? Life and death? How were you rationalizing that in your head?’” Margulies said.
Jaax’s answer surprised her.
“She said, ‘Normally I would think about what I needed to buy in the grocery store. Like, what I needed to do after work and what I hadn’t gotten,’” Margulies said. “So in a certain way it was also a godsend because it allowed her not to think about her own mortality.”
For months now, Nancy and Jerry Jaax have been attending advance screenings and red carpet events.
“It’s a little surreal to see your name and someone else’s face,” Jaax said. But she said Margulies really captured the whole experience. “She is a really good actor. She did a great job.”
Her husband said they both liked the series. Particularly because even though it’s Hollywood dramatic, “it focuses on emerging diseases and how we have to be prepared for outbreaks like this one. It is a continuous battle.”
After their grandchildren saw the miniseries and liked it, Jerry Jaax said he was convinced that it will be a hit.
He said it was important to National Geographic to get the science around Ebola right.
“They insisted that they have an expert consultant who knew about Ebola,” he said. They ended up with Michael Smit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles — and the couple’s nephew. Jaax said her nephew’s career was inspired when he read “The Hot Zone.”
After retiring from the military, the couple landed back where they attended veterinary school: Kansas State University in Manhattan. He took a research leadership position to further the university’s biodefense mission. She participated in innumerable infectious disease initiatives there.
Both played significant roles in developing K-State’s biocontainment facility and assisted in winning the bid for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, which is under construction north of campus.
Nancy Jaax grew up in Wichita; Jerry Jaax on a farm southwest of there. When they retired from K-State, they moved to Lenexa.
Where to watch
“The Hot Zone” will air in six parts on three consecutive nights, starting at 8 p.m. Monday, May 27, on National Geographic.