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Barbara Bush recalls daughter's death: 'I saw her spirit go'

Nov. 20, 2012 at 10:21 AM ET

The doctor delivered a diagnosis no parent wants to hear for a child: cancer.

Robin, the 3-year-old daughter of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, had become listless and no longer wanted to play.

It was 1953, and tests revealed she had leukemia. When the Bushes asked what they needed to do, their doctor gave them a devastating prognosis.

“She said, ‘You don’t do anything. She’s going to die,’” former first lady Barbara Bush recalled for her granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager, in a TODAY interview.

“'She said, ‘My advice is take her home, love her. In about two weeks she’ll be gone.'”

Instead, the Bushes took their daughter across the country to a hospital willing to treat children, something virtually unheard of at the time. Blood transfusions and painful bone marrow tests followed, but Robin eventually died, just shy of her fourth birthday.

“I was combing her hair and holding her hand,” Bush said. “I saw that little body, I saw her spirit go,”

Decades later, leukemia is no longer a death sentence for children. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital estimates the survival rate for the most common type of leukemia to be 94 percent, thanks to improved technology as well as cells and DNA preserved from patients treated in the 1960s, according to hospital doctors.

Hager pointed out that stigma around cancer has also changed. When Robin was diagnosed, neighbors wouldn’t let their children around her, for fear that they would catch the disease. The scientific and social progress over the years brings comfort to the Bushes, who donated Robin’s body to research after her death.

“It made Gampy and me feel that something good is coming out of this precious little life. And today, almost nobody dies of leukemia,” Bush told Hager, whose father, former President George W. Bush, was seven when his sister died.

Decades later, Robin continues to be on the minds of the Bushes, even more so in recent years, Bush said.

“Robin to me is a joy. She’s like an angel to me, and she’s not a sadness or a sorrow,” she said, remembering “those little fat arms around my neck."

Hager noted how her grandfather has mentioned he expects Robin to be the first person to see when he passes away. Bush has no doubt that will be the case.

“It is who he’ll see first,” she said firmly.

 

Barry Thumma
During their husbands’ presidencies, many of America’s first ladies have been first moms as well. Enjoy a mother lode of photos that look at the busy lives of White House moms.

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