TODAY | December 25, 2012
>>> our special series "thanks and giving" where we highlight the work of st. jude 's research hospital. it's celebrating its 50th an ver versery and today jenna bush hager is here with a very touching story.
>> good morning, matt. the survival rate for a child surviving leukemia is 90%. my grandparents had a doubt their died of leukemia, and my grandfather wrote this touching letter about this devastating loss.
>> there is about our house and knee, the running pulsating restlessness of the four boys. all this wonder needs a counterpart. we need a legitimate christmas angel . we need a girl.
>> the girl, my aunt, robin bush , was born on december 20th , 1949 . two years younger than my dad, my grandparent's little girl was a prized joy.
>> gampy and i were very young, and it was a very big day for us, beautiful little girl .
>> reporter: her sweet soul and girly calm filled their home with warmth.
>> she was quiet and gentle, and she had lovely little blond curls.
>> reporter: at only 3 their gentle girl began to change. her energy waned. how could you first tell she was getting sick?
>> because she was listless. didn't want to do anything. just wanted to rest, go out and watch cars go by, so i called the doctor and i said can i bring robin out. i think she has spring fever and the doctor sort of laughed, and we went out and she had a few bruises on her and the doctor took a blood test and said i'll call you.
>> that call led to devastating news.
>> she told that is robin had leukemia. what do you do for leukemia? well, she said, you don't do anything. she's going to die, and we said, no, i don't think so. and she said my advice is take her home, love her and in about two weeks she will be gone.
>> reporter: he decided their love alone wasn't enough and took robin across the country to a hospital willing to try treatment on a child.
>> they took bone marrow tests which were painful. a lot of blood. they put her on chemo, and poor gampy, every time she got a blood transfusion she's have to leave the room.
>> reporter: seven months later when she was almost 4 robin died.
>> i was combing her hair and holding her hand. i saw that little body. i saw her spirit go. out of despair a glimpse of hope. how did you decide to donate her body to research?
>> it wasn't hard. i think it made gampy and me feel something good is coming out of this precious little life and today, almost nobody dies of leukemia.
>> reporter: st. jude 's children's research hospital was founded nearly a decade after robin 's death. in 1991 my grandmother visited st. jude 's.
>> what on earth could be better in the eyes of god than a hospital that saves children's lives.
>> reporter: now i was thrilled to get an invitation from marlo thomas to see the progress that's been made over the years. she explained that the first doctors here were willing to try new techniques to beat leukemia.
>> every place else they were taking one drug at a time and trying it, but our faculty said let's take all the drugs at once and make a gigantic total treatment, they called it, cocktail, plus radiation, and after two years the kids were getting cured.
>> reporter: soon after, doctors took the bold step of stopping treatment for children in remission.
>> because you could treat them forever. it's going to be so toxic, it will kill them.
>> reporter: another more recent breakthrough.
>> i wanted you to meet brooklyn and her mom becca.
>> hi, brooklyn , nice to meet snow st. jude 's discovered how to cure leukemia without harmful radiation. leukemia patient brooklyn is 3, same age as my aunt robin when she passed away .
>> st. jude has just really been everything to us, putting her into remission and keeping her that way.
>> reporter: how do you feel brooklyn ?
>> reporter: you feel good? the lab i learned why it was so important that my grandparents donated robin 's body to science.
>> we still have cells and dna from patients that we treated in the 1960s . now that technology has gotten better, we can go back and learn what caused those cancers and why some children were cured and others weren't.
>> reporter: and for my grandparents' darling child, my grandmother says even nearly 60 years later there are still thoughts of love.
>> george and i do talk about it. maybe more recently in the last two or three years than before.
>> reporter: why do you think that is?
>> oh, i think we're getting older, and -- and robin to me is a joy. she's like an angel to me, and she's not a sadness or a sorrow. those little fat arms around my neck.
>> reporter: gampy actually said recently he hopes when he passes away that's who he will see first.
>> it is who he'll see first.
>> reporter: there's a tra tradition at st. jude 's to send balloons to heaven to remember those who passed on.
>> up to robin .
>> reporter: i shared this with my grandmother.
>> she's still with us. we need her and yet we have her. we can't touch her, and yet we can feel her. we hope she will stay in our house for a very, very long time.
>> reporter: and my aunt would be 63 years old. my grandmother says seeing kids living with leukemia makes her so proud of how far we've come. she also shared that the stigma of living with cancer has changed drastically. when my aunt was little, some friends wouldn't even let their kids play with her because they thought that you could catch cancer which is unbelievable.
>> it is a touching story, jenna, it really is, and how proud, you know, you must be of the work that's done at the hospital. the cure rate 94%, not only with leukemia and other great advancements.
>> brain tumorses, gone from 10% to 85% and wonderful, mrs. bush is such a living example of what it was like and what it is now, and there was such a thrill for us to entertain her at st. jude and have her walk through the labs and see what we are doing.
>> just a reminder so people understand. the research that's done at this hospital has been shared. they don't lock it up in this room and say only we know how to do it.
>> we only say the work's being done in our labs but it's going to every single community around the country. the children come from all over the world to be at st. jude and because we take very bold steps, a very bold steps for us to stop radiating children with leukemia. nobody else wanted to do that, but we knew that we could improve the care, improve the treatment and take some of the harm away from the children.
>> your dad would be so proud.
>> he would be very proud, but you know what's really important, matt? it's not my father. it's all the mothers and fathers who are watching these shows on the "today" show every single day and getting information and getting hope because there really is a place to go.
>> marlo, thanks for that. jenna, thanks again for sharing what i know is a very, very personal story.
>> of course.
>> thanks to your family as well.