By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated September 27, 2016 06:12 PM

When Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine talked with PEOPLE about their budding partnership, one mysterious bit in the interview stood out: “Some of my staffers,” the senator from Virginia said to Clinton softly, “we have been through some challenging times, and you have taken good care of them.”

Enter Tyrone Gayle. Because the “some of my staffers” turns out to be Gayle – and the “some challenging times” is Gayle’s life-and-death battle with Stage 4 colon cancer.

Gayle, 28, was just about marking his one-year anniversary as a domestic-policy spokesman at Clinton’s Brooklyn, New York, campaign headquarters last March when the diagnosis upended his world. “It was obviously a tough time,” the Jacksonville, Florida, native tells PEOPLE. Within days, his old boss, Kaine, reached out. And after Gayle’s surgery in April, Kaine visited the young former aide who logged 15-hour days driving him 60,000 miles around Virginia during his 2012 Senate race.

Credit: Courtesy Tyrone Gale and Hillary for America

“From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later, I was driving him and staffing him, keeping him on schedule, briefing him on who he was meeting and keeping his morale up – whether that was by an early-morning hike or talking sports trivia,” Gayle recalls.
“I spent more time with him than his wife did during that stretch and he spent more time with me than any of my friends did.”

Gayle’s relationship with his current boss, inside a big national campaign operation, was not nearly as close. But she, too, reached out to Gayle after his diagnosis. “She wanted to know what she could do, how she could help me,” Gayle says. “And she asked me to keep her updated on my surgery and chemo. I heard from her multiple times.”

Hospitalized for several weeks, Gayle kept up with CNN and MSNBC’s Morning Joe on TV. “I couldn’t recover in a silo. I had to keep tabs on what was happening.” And once he was discharged, he returned to work full-time – publicizing Clinton’s initiatives on digital technology, higher education, child care and the like – as he went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy.

“Everyone has their own style,” he explains. “But for me, I couldn’t live with myself by sitting on the sidelines – even during the illness.”

At Week 6, the halfway point in his chemotherapy, Gayle typed an email to Clinton. The milestone in his recovery happened to coincide with her final deliberations on choosing a running mate. Gayle knew from the press that Kaine was on her short list of possibilities.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this is a really big decision for her and I wanted to do everything I could to put in a plug for someone I value,’ ” he says.

If such a plug directly to the boss was bold and presumptuous for a young staffer, Gayle says he just went for it. “I thought, ‘This is the next vice president, so, why not?’ ”

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

This, in part, is what Gayle wrote about Kaine: “During the 2012 campaign cycle, I traveled all across Virginia with him spending upwards of 15 hours each day for 15 months on the road as his special assistant. I can personally attest to his incredible character, integrity, competency and ability to get things done. I believe he would be a great choice, and be an effective governing partner.”

Five days later, on July 22, Clinton announced Kaine as her choice for vice president.

In her PEOPLE interview, Clinton remembered Gayle’s email as persuasive – without identifying him or the health crisis that gave rise to their correspondence back and forth.

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“It meant so much to me, because that’s a birds’ eye view. That’s somebody sitting in a car with you, hour after hour, and I’m very grateful that the people who worked with me and for me over the years have been so positive and supportive of me. To hear from one of them, ‘Hey, this is the guy you should pick,’ I found that very much positive information that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

With his work on the Kaine selection done, Gayle is back to focusing on Election Day and, he says, “listening to my doctors and hoping for the best.”

The results of his latest MRI brought more Clinton and Kaine notes to Gayle’s inbox. Celebratory ones. Says Gayle, “I am currently cancer-free.”